Highland connection as Mars rover Curiosity heads for Glenelg

By Steven McKenzie
BBC Scotland Highlands and Islands reporter

image captionAn artist's impression of Curiosity on Mars

Mars rover Curiosity is on the move - and its first destination on the Red Planet has a namesake deep in the Scottish Highlands.

The robot is heading for Glenelg, an area of intriguing rocky terrain which it will visit twice on its journey to and from the Martian mountain, Mount Sharp.

This coming and going inspired the rover team to use a palindrome - a word which reads the same forwards and backwards - when it chose the name Glenelg.

image captionGlenelg is a settlement of white-painted houses in mainland Highlands

So how do the two Glenelgs compare?

Getting there: Curiosity spent eight months tucked inside a spacecraft on the 570 million km journey from Earth to Mars.

The trip through space was fraught with risk. Two-thirds of all missions to the Red Planet have failed, with many lost on entry into the thin but unforgiving Martian atmosphere.

Now the rover is moving on the planet's surface, it will take it a week to reach the Martian Glenelg.

Getting to the Earth-bound Glenelg can also be a challenge.

Between April and mid-October, the mainland community can be reached from Skye in a short crossing of the Kyle Rhea strait using the aged car ferry, Glenachulish.

By road, travellers must take the twisting single track road that climbs to more than 1,000ft over Bealach Ratagan, one of the highest mountain passes in the UK.

The road seems a daunting prospect in winter, but according to the wife of a local crofter interviewed by BBC Scotland earlier this year "the newspapers always get delivered".

The journey from Inverness, the nearest city, takes two hours.

What is it like?: Scientists and the public have been wowed by several images of Mars already sent back by Curiosity.

The Nasa team wants the rover to visit the area dubbed Glenelg because it appears to be an intersection of three distinct types of rock terrain.

image captionA satellite image of Mars with Curiosity's landing site and Glenelg marked

Joy Crisp, a deputy project scientist on the mission, said: "When we finally get to Glenelg, we want to study the outcrop there and take a look at the contacts between the three different terrain types.

"Maybe there is where we'll decide to do our first drilling into rock."

The goal of Curiosity's mission is to determine whether Mars has ever had the conditions to support life.

Earth's Glenelg is a small, leafy settlement of white-painted houses.

The community sits on Glenelg Bay and has views across the Kyle Rhea strait to Skye and the island's mountains.

The surrounding area is packed with evidence of past life in the Highlands.

These include the ruins of Bernera Barracks. Built in the 18th Century, it provided a base for government troops patrolling against rebellious Jacobite sympathisers in the surrounding hills and glens.

In nearby Gleann Beag stand the ruins of Dun Telve and Dun Troddan, the fortress-like stone homesteads of Iron Age farmers.

Reaction to mission: Residents of Scotland's Glenelg have been highlighting the rover's mission on their community website.

Nothing has been heard so far from any Martians.

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