Curiosity Plays in Mars Sand, Ready for Dune 'Jump'

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As Mars rover drivers plan a less aggressive drive to its next science target, Curiosity has been playing in the sand at the base of a dune. No, the one-ton robot isn’t getting bored, it’s testing out the composition of the material to see whether it is safe for its six wheels to climb.

PHOTOS: Mars Wear and Tear: Curiosity’s Wheel Damage

Over the past few months, there has been increasing concern for the condition of Curiosity’s aluminum wheels; sharp Mars rocks have been denting, scratching and even puncturing the thin material. The front-left wheel even has a dramatic rip where the strip of aluminum has been torn away. This unexpected acceleration of wear and tear has prompted mission managers to actively seek out smoother alternative routes as Curiosity makes its epic drive toward Mount Sharp (Aeolis Mons) in the center of Gale Crater.

Late last month, Curiosity drove up to a 1-meter high dune that bridges a small valley between two craggy outcrops. Dubbed “Dingo Gap”, the dune appears smooth and sandy; a wind-blown deposit that is common on the Martian surface. However, beyond the dune is a smooth route to the mission’s next drilling science target, KMS-9, around half-a-mile from the rover’s current location. KMS-9 appears to have layered rocky deposits that could provide further valuable clues as to the red planet’s ancient potential for life-nurturing environments. But to reach KMS-9, Curiosity scientists and engineers are deliberating whether or not the rover should mount the dune, roll over and continue its drive.

ANALYSIS: Will Mars Rover Curiosity Become a Dune Buggy?

The operation would, however, be fraught with risks and the decision to drive over the dune depends on the outcome of a planned drive up the dune’s slope later this week. Although the nuclear-powered bot is more than capable of driving up the dune’s slope, there’s concern that there may be hidden rocks that might obstruct Curiosity’s progress.

A color panorama of Dingo Gap and the landscape beyond.
NASA/JPL-Caltech

Any mention of “sand” and “rover” is an obviously sensitive subject. In 2009, NASA’s veteran Mars Exploration Rover Spirit became snarled in a sand trap in Gusev Crater, an event that spelled doom for the golf cart-sized rover the following year. Sister rover Opportunity has also had its scrapes with sand traps; it got in a jam in 2005 for several weeks, but its minders at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., were able to formulate an escape plan.

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Should mission managers take the plunge and command the rover to drive over the dune, it would prove that although she’s looking a bit battered, Curiosity doesn’t let anything stand in the way of it and a bounty of scientific discovery.

If Curiosity gets its speed up, it could use this dune as a ramp. Curiosity would be the Steve McQueen of SCIENCE! pic.twitter.com/NxVVsZykHP — Dr. Ian O'Neill (@astroengine) January 30, 2014