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Curiosity rover does 180-degree turn on Mars

Posted March 6, 2014

Tracks left by the one-ton Curiosity rover after climbing a sand dune on Mars. The wheels are about 9 feet apart. (Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS)

NASA’s Curiosity rover shows each of the three and a third miles on its odometer since landing in Gale Crater 563 Martian days ago (19 Earth months).

That’s about the distance from the WRAL studios to Krispy Kreme, I’ve checked. That’s also the height of Mount Sharp, the layered mound of sediment in the center of the crater and the primary target during Curiosity’s nearly two-year long primary mission.

Curiosity’s aluminum wheels are wearing more than expected. Small punctures and even a tear have occurred as the rover drove over ground rougher than but also more geologically interesting than anticipated. The team planning Curiosity’s route has hatched a unique plan to help the mission stay on task while reducing wheel wear. Doing a 180 into a kinder-gentler route.

On Feb. 18, rover drivers began practicing driving the rover backwards. Like a Carolina Hurricanes defensemen effortlessly changing directions on the blue line, Curiosity eased into her new direction setting a one-day distance record of 329 feet. This isn’t like trying to drive with a backup camera mounted on the rear of the family minivan. Curiosity is equipped with the same hazard cameras on the front and rear of the rover.

"We wanted to have backwards driving in our validated toolkit because there will be parts of our route that will be more challenging," said Curiosity Project Manager Jim Erickson of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.

That backwards route came after driving over a three-foot tall sand dune leading into Dingo Gap where rover will encounter a softer surface with fewer sharp rocks. The soft sand that trapped the smaller Spirit rover in 2009 was on every driver’s mind as they planned the drive. The dune was carefully tested before scaling it with the 1-ton rover.

The teams used imagery from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter to plan Curiosity’s new route. Drives will be longer on this less punishing surface until the next waypoint, dubbed Kimberly. Curiosity will pause at Kimberly, an interesting intersection of different rock layers, to examine and possibly drill. The team of drivers will also use that time to further adjust Curiosity’s planned path on the way to the base of Mount Sharp.

Tony Rice is a volunteer in the NASA/JPL Solar System Ambassador program and software engineer at Cisco Systems. You can follow him on Twitter @rtphokie.


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