Will Mars Rover Curiosity Become a Dune Buggy?
A selection of a panorama photographed by Curiosity on Jan. 28 (sol 526 of the mission) of "Dingo Gap" -- a 1 meter-high dune bridging the gap between two craggy scarps, an obstacle on a potential driving route for the rover.
On Friday (Dec. 20), NASA's Mars Science Laboratory team announced that they were monitoring Curiosity's wheels. The rover's six wheels appear to have sustained accelerated damage as the one-ton rover drives over the rocky terrain inside Gale Crater. Although the aircraft-grade aluminum is designed to withstand some dents and holes, some of the rips and gashes in between the wheels' treads are causing concern. In this selection of "before and after" photos from Curiosity's raw image archive, we've pulled some photos taken by Curiosity's robotic-arm mounted MAHLI camera. The dates and the day (sol) of Curiosity's mission are noted.NEWS: Rough Roving: Curiosity's Wheel Damage 'Accelerated'
Curiosity's middle-right wheel is shown here 34 days (sols) after the mission touched down in Gale Crater. Some red dust can be seen lightly covering the wheel. Very few dents are evident.
Note: Some minor contrast and brightness adjustments have been made to the raw imagery.
454 sols later, significant wear and tear can be seen on the same wheel. On the top, a gash in the aluminum skin is evident.
Close up and comparison of the gash in the aluminum wheel skin as seen on sol 488 (Dec. 20).
The same front-right wheel as seen 311 sols later. Note the punctures on the inside of the wheel.
Until now we've seen minor damage to Curiosity's wheels, likely well within the wear expected for nearly 3 miles of roving. But the rover's front-left wheel is exhibiting one of the larger gashes with a long flap of aluminum bending toward the inside of the wheel. Shown here is the wheel in sol 177 when only minor dings and scratches can be seen.
By sol 488, the same wheel is dented and damaged, but of most concern is the large hole that is forming near the bottom of the photo.
The same wheel, zoomed in and compared between sol 177 and sol 488. Arrows indicate the spreading of the crack through the wheel's skin, along the tread.READ MORE: Rough Roving: Curiosity's Wheel Damage 'Accelerated'
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.
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.
“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.
“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.
Curiosity's wheel damage.NASA/JPL-Caltech