On Thursday at 3:41 p.m. EST (20:41 UTC), Mars rover Curiosity beamed back the above photograph from its rear hazard avoidance camera (Hazcam). In the shot we see wheel tracks in the downward slope of the dune bridging “Dingo Gap” with the peak of Curiosity’s eventual goal, Mount Sharp, on the horizon. This can mean only one thing; the one-ton robot has successfully conquered its first Mars dune!
“Over the dune and through the gap we go. Image looking back at our tracks across the Dingo Gap dune,” Mars Science Laboratory mission manager Noah Warner, at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), Pasadena, Calif, said in a Twitter update on Thursday accompanied with the above Hazcam photo.
“Seeing this picture from the bottom of the sand dune put an even bigger smile on my face today,” tweeted rover driver Matt Heverly also of JPL.
For the past few days, mission scientists and engineers have been carefully planning Curiosity’s drive over the 1 meter-high dune. On Tuesday, the rover successfully breached the crest of the dune and then parked itself at the dune’s apex. Then, on Thursday, rover drivers obviously deemed the dune safe to roll over, commanding Curiosity to continue its drive.
Care needed to be taken when roving over this particular obstacle as many unseen hazards could have stopped Curiosity in its tracks. This was, after all, how veteran Mars Exploration Rover Spirit met its demise, getting snared by a sand trap in Gusev Crater in 2009.
Curiosity has been roving across the rock-strewn plane Aeolis Planum inside Gale Crater since August 2012, notching up over 3 miles on its odometer so far. But that hard Mars roving has come at a price. Wear and tear on the rover’s aluminum wheels have accelerated in recent months, prompting mission managers to seek out less abrasive routes for Curiosity to rove over. The ‘Ding Gap’ dune, as mission managers nicknamed it, stood in the way of a smoother route to its next science target, so rover drivers formulated a plan to breach the dune so Curiosity can drive to that target.
The risk was obviously worth it and now Curiosity is safely on the far side of the dune, ready to continue dominating the Martian surface.