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Mars Rover Curiosity Celebrates 1st Birthday Off Earth

This panorama is a mosaic of images taken by the Mast Camera (Mastcam) on NASA's Mars rover Curiosity while the rover was working at a site called "Rocknest" in October and November 2012.NASA/JPL-Caltech/Malin Space Science Systems

NASA's Mars rover Curiosity marked one year away from Earth Monday (Nov. 26), but the car-size robot's work on the Red Planet is just getting started.

Curiosity launched from Florida's Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on Nov. 26, 2011, then endured an eight-month cruise through deep space to the Red Planet. The $2.5 billion rover touched down on Aug. 5, executing an unprecedented series of maneuvers that saw it lowered to the Martian surface on cables by a rocket-powered sky crane.

Since that dramatic landing, Curiosity has driven 1,696 feet (517 meters) and returned more than 23,000 raw images to its handlers here on Earth, NASA officials said. But there's much more to come.

Curiosity is just 16 weeks into a two-year prime mission that aims to determine if its Gale Crater landing site can, or ever could, support microbial life. The rover carries 10 different science instruments to help it in this quest, including one called Sample Analysis at Mars, or SAM, which can identify organic compounds — the carbon-containing building blocks of life as we know it.

SAM may already have detected something exciting. Curiosity chief scientist John Grotzinger, a geologist at Caltech in Pasadena, told NPR earlier this month that SAM's first tastes of Martian soil are providing data "for the history books."

Grotzinger and others on the Curiosity team will reveal what Curiosity has found on Monday (Dec. 3), during a presentation at the American Geophysical Union meeting in San Francisco.

At the moment, Curiosity is at a site that mission scientists have dubbed "Point Lake," which overlooks lower ground to the east. The rover team is scanning the landscape for targets for the first use of the rover's drill, which can bore 1 inch (2.5 centimeters) into solid rock.

Curiosity's ultimate destination is the base of Mount Sharp, a mysterious mountain that rises 3.4 miles (5.5 kilometers) from Gale Crater's center. These foothills show signs of long-ago contact with liquid water.

The rover could be ready to head toward Mount Sharp's interesting deposits — which lie about 6 miles (10 km) away — by the end of the year or so, Curiosity scientists have said.