Home Front Page Sand slopes on Mars forces NASA’s rover Curiosity to back out –...

Sand slopes on Mars forces NASA’s rover Curiosity to back out – crew looks for alternatives

Curiosity can only dream of highways where she is – the NASA Mars rover doesn’t have the easiest job trying to get from point A to point B, which became obvious just recently, when the rover had to back out of a too slippery route and return to safety.

Curiosity has been in trouble before, sliding downwards on slippery slopes where polygonal sand made it too hard to cross certain parts of the planned way.

It’s always more of a challenge when trying to remote control an unmanned vehicle on another planet, than it would be to steer even the most advanced model planes here on Earth, and it’s in any case a lot easier to fix the plane if it breaks on this side of the atmosphere. The choice to be ultra-cautios when maneuvering a Mars rover is just not negotiable – the thing needs to work for as long as possible and finish as many tasks as can do, without getting lost in a sand storm or falling down into some steep crater.

With that in mind, 22 metres up a slope on Mars is simply a victory, especially since several other, possible routes had to be dismissed, taking into consideration previous experiences. A slope with a decline of 21 degrees was a piece of cake for the Marsian immigrant, and now scientists hope to learn more about the geological processes that once created the two different types of rock beds where the rover’s now taking samples.

Ashwin Vasavada, one of the project scientists working with Curiosity, explains the difficulties and never-ending thrills that come with the job: “One factor the science team considers, is how much time to spend reaching a particular target, when there are many others ahead. We used observations from NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter to identify an alliterative site for investigating the geological contact in the Logan Pass area. It’s a little mind-blowing to drive up a hill to a site we saw only in satellite images, and then find it in front of us.”

What lays ahead of Curiosity now, is to keep examining even higher layers of Mount Sharp, a location that the rover reached last year. Before reaching the mountain base, it finished investigating the areas around its landing site as well as collecting different data while driving to its first target. Curiosity has been working on site since 2012.

Image: NASA