Curiosity Mars rover checking possible smoother route

January 30, 2014
This scene combines images taken by the left-eye camera of the Mast Camera (Mastcam) instrument on NASA's Curiosity Mars rover during the midafternoon, local Mars solar time, of the mission's 526th Martian day, or sol (Jan. 28, 2014). Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

( —The team operating NASA's Mars rover Curiosity is considering a path across a small sand dune to reach a favorable route to science destinations.

A favorable route would skirt some terrain with sharp rocks considered more likely to poke holes in the rover's aluminum wheels.

While the team has been assessing ways to reduce wear and tear to the wheels, Curiosity has made progress toward a next site for drilling a rock sample and also toward its long-term destination: geological layers exposed on slopes of Mount Sharp. The rover has driven into a mapping quadrant that includes a candidate site for drilling. Meanwhile, testing on Earth is validating capabilities for drilling into rocks on slopes the rover will likely encounter on Mount Sharp.

Curiosity has driven 865 feet (264.7 meters) since Jan. 1, for a total odometry of 3.04 miles (4.89 kilometers) since its August 2012 landing.

Accumulation of punctures and rips in the wheels accelerated in the fourth quarter of 2013. Among the responses to that development, the team now drives the rover with added precautions, thoroughly checks the condition of Curiosity's wheels frequently, and is evaluating routes and driving methods that could avoid some wheel damage.

A dune about 3 feet (1 meter) high spans the gap between two scarps that might be a gateway to a southwestward route over relatively smooth ground. Curiosity is approaching the site, "Dingo Gap," from the southeast. The team is using images from the rover to assess whether to cross the dune.

As NASA's Mars rover Curiosity is progressing toward Mount Sharp, researchers are using the rover's instruments to examine soils and rocks in Gale Crater. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/LANL/CNES/IRAP/LPGNantes/CNRS/IA

"The decision hasn't been made yet, but it is prudent to go check," said Jim Erickson of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., project manager for Curiosity. "We'll take a peek over the dune into the valley immediately to the west to see whether the terrain looks as good as the analysis of orbital images implies." The orbital images come from the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera on NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.

Other routes have also been evaluated for getting Curiosity from the rover's current location to a candidate drilling site called "KMS-9." That site lies about half a mile (800 meters) away by straight line, but considerably farther by any of the driving routes assessed. Characteristics seen in orbital imagery of the site appeal to Curiosity's science team. "At KMS-9, we see three terrain types exposed and a relatively dust-free surface," said science team collaborator Katie Stack of the California Institute of Technology, Pasadena.

Before Curiosity's landing inside Gale Crater, the mission's science team used images from orbit to map terrain types in a grid of 140 square quadrants, each about 0.9 mile (1.5 kilometers) wide. Curiosity landed in the "Yellowknife" quadrant and subsequently crossed parts of quadrants called "Mawson" and "Coeymans." This month, it entered the "Kimberley" quadrant, home of KMS-9.

Stack said, "This area is appealing because we can see terrain units unlike any that Curiosity has visited so far. One unit has striations all oriented in a similar direction. Another is smooth, without striations. We don't know yet what they are. The big draw is exploration and seeing new things."

Science investigations have continued along with recent drives. One rock examined on Jan. 15, "Harrison," revealed linear crystals with feldspar-rich composition.

To prepare for destinations farther ahead, engineers are using a test rover at JPL to check the rover's ability to tolerate slight slippage on slopes while using its drill. With the drill bit in a rock, tests simulating slips of up to about 2 inches (5 centimeters) have not caused damage.

"These tests are building confidence for operations we are likely to use when Curiosity is on the slopes of Mount Sharp," said JPL's Daniel Limonadi, systems engineering leader for surface sampling with the rover's arm.

Other testing at JPL is evaluating possible driving techniques that might help reduce the rate of wheel punctures, such as driving backwards or using four-wheel drive instead of six-wheel drive. Some of the wheel damage may result from the force of rear wheels pushing middle or front wheels against sharp rocks, rather than simply the weight of the rover driving over the rocks.

"An analogy is when you are rolling your wheeled luggage over a curb, you can feel the difference between trying to push it over the curb or pull it over the curb," said JPL's Richard Rainen, mechanical engineering team leader for Curiosity.

While continuing to evaluate routes and driving techniques, Curiosity's team will add some weekend and evening shifts in February to enable planning more drives than would otherwise be possible.

Explore further: Curiosity team upgrades software, checks wheel wear

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not rated yet Jan 30, 2014
Can anyone enlighten me on the object located to the right of the bluff on the RHS of the hi-res photo? Looks like a large ribbed cylinder?
5 / 5 (2) Jan 31, 2014
Yeah, that's just an eroded rock piece that broke off the enscarpment.

I'm certainly hoping that they aren't planning to drive over that dune. That looks like a rover trap to me.

That terrain looks so rough though. I'm starting to wonder if they will ever reach Mt Sharp. It's really a shame that the rover ended up landing so far away from the mountain, way out at the opposite edge of the landing zone. Still, they have gotten a lot of good science already, so not a total loss.

Just imagine how rough the terrain in Vallis Marinaris must be, compared to what we see here. Mars is one heck of a challenging place. I guess the mountains on the moon are probably just as bad, but we've never really tried to visit them either.
1 / 5 (1) Jan 31, 2014
Can anyone enlighten me on the object located to the right of the bluff on the RHS of the hi-res photo? Looks like a large ribbed cylinder?
Yeah I noticed that too. If you look at the original pic

-it looks like a rocket engine. If you let your imagination go the landscape begins to look like its strewn with all sorts of techno flotsam and jetsam.

That dune itself looks strange to me. Smooth, featureless, off-color, looks more like a shoop meant to disguise something else. Or it's a beaver dam, I don't know.
5 / 5 (1) Jan 31, 2014
"I guess the mountains on the moon are probably just as bad, but we've never really tried to visit them either."

Well, we got a pretty good look at the lunar highlands with Apollo 15. That mission landed near two lunar peaks, Mons Hadley(4.6 km elev.) and Mons Hadley Delta(3.5 km elev.) in the Montes Apenninus mountain range:


They sure looked pretty imposing from the surface:

not rated yet Feb 02, 2014
Can anyone enlighten me on the object located to the right of the bluff on the RHS of the hi-res photo? Looks like a large ribbed cylinder?

After careful photo analysis I have concluded it is the skeleton of a Buzz Lightyear LGM...
not rated yet Feb 03, 2014
This micrograph looks very similar to a poikilitic gabbro type of rock.
2.5 / 5 (2) Feb 03, 2014
Can anyone enlighten me on the object located to the right of the bluff on the RHS of the hi-res photo? Looks like a large ribbed cylinder?
You can go crazy looking at these images. About one quarter from the left, I see an old drainage pipe imbedded in the ground with a black robed figure sitting on the end of it holding a stick over its head!

I think it must be Old Ben Kanobi!

5 / 5 (2) Feb 03, 2014
Wow, I've thought a bit more about how rough that terrain is. Without having water erosion, every rock edge looks sharp and pointy. I can't imagine trying to work around that kind of stuff every day in a space suit. Suit punctures would probably be routine, and you'll be hard pressed to get anything done if you're spending all your time fixing leaks in your suit.

Those layered rocks might even be prone to keep razor sharp edges. And every time your suit gets a hole, you know you'll get dust inside too.

Wouldn't it be ironic if we eventually find out that simple dust turns out to be one of the greatest challenges for human expansion off of the Earth. You'll have that kind of dust anywhere there's no liquid water (moons, asteroids, etc.) We are gonna have to learn how to work around that if we ever hope to expand.

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