Will Mars Rover Curiosity Become a Dune Buggy?

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NASA’s one-ton rover Curiosity has been feeling the wrath of the Martian landscape in recent months and now mission managers are seeking out a smoother path to the robot’s ultimate goal.

In a new panorama photographed by Curiosity’s Mastcam, a smooth dune bridges two craggy scarps, beyond which rover drivers hope to find a landscape that may be a little more forgiving on the rover’s aluminum wheels.

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

In December, mission managers revealed their growing concern for the “accelerated” wheel damage Curiosity was sustaining. In short, the rough terrain inside Gale Crater is taking its toll on the rover’s six wheels, causing dings, scratches and punctures. In high-resolution photographs captured by the rover’s robotic arm-mounted MAHLI camera, the full extent of Curiosity’s wheel damage was revealed; long rips in the thin material are forming.

As the rover has 4.89 kilometers (3.04 miles) of driving under its belt, and many more miles until it reaches its ultimate destination of the slopes of Mount Sharp, mission managers want to preserve the wheels’ condition for as long as possible, so searching for smoother landscape to traverse would be “prudent,” said project manager Jim Erickson of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.

NEWS: Rough Roving: Curiosity’s Wheel Damage ‘Accelerated’

“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,” he said in a JPL news release. Curiosity’s orbital buddy, NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), continues to keep an eye on the rover’s surroundings, spying out alternate routes for Curiosity to drive.

The dune, which stands approximately 1 meter (3 feet) high, has been dubbed “Dingo Gap” and would be a significant obstacle to overcome, so a final decision has yet to be made.

Mission scientists are eying a candidate drilling site that could be of significant scientific interest called KMS-9, approximately 800 meters (half a mile) from the rover’s current location, but the journey there will likely be a lot longer depending on the winding route picked out by rover drivers.

ANALYSIS: Rough Roving: Curiosity’s Wheels Show Damage

“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. “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.”

But will Curiosity become a dune buggy to reach KMS-9? We’ll just have to wait and see.

Let’s hope Curiosity’s road to Mount Sharp becomes a little smoother, I for one, want to see many more roving years ahead of this awesome mission.

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