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Curiosity rover crosses rugged plateau

Curiosity Mars Rover Crosses Rugged Plateau This 360-degree panorama from the Mastcam on NASA's Curiosity Mars rover shows the rugged surface of "Naukluft Plateau" plus upper Mount Sharp at right and part of the rim of Gale Crater. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

This 360-degree panorama from the Mastcam on NASA’s Curiosity rover shows the rugged surface of “Naukluft Plateau” plus upper Mount Sharp at right and part of the rim of Gale Crater.
(Click for full view) Image & Caption Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech / MSSS

NASA’s Curiosity rover has nearly finished crossing some of the roughest and most difficult to navigate terrain encountered during its 44 months on Mars. The rover climbed onto the rugged “Naukluft Plateau” of Mount Sharp in early March after spending several weeks exploring nearby sand dunes. Curiosity is now taking a path towards smoother surfaces leading to geological  layers of scientific interest farther uphill.The Curiosity team was concerned that the plateau’s rough terrain could cause further damage to the rover’s aluminum wheels. Tears and holes in the wheels first became noticeable in 2013.

Mars Science Laboratory rover Curiosity image credit NASA JPL posted on SpaceFlight Insider

Curiosity touched down on the surface of Mars in August 2012 and has undertaken an extensive scientific campaign. Image Credit: NASA / JPL

The Curiosity team responded to the damage by adjusting the long-term traverse route and changing how the local terrain is assessed, as well as refining how drives are planned. Extensive Earth-based testing provided insights into increasing wheel longevity. Wear and tear on Curiosity’s six wheels are being closely monitored.

“We carefully inspect and trend the condition of the wheels,” said Steve Lee, Curiositys deputy project manager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, located in Pasadena, California. “Cracks and punctures have been gradually accumulating at the pace we anticipated, based on testing we performed at JPL. Given our longevity projections, I am confident these wheels will get us to the destinations on Mount Sharp that have been in our plans since before landing.”

While the terrain of Naukluft Plateau has presented challenges in terms of navigation, inspection of the rover’s wheels indicated that it did not accelerate damage to them.

The next part of Curiosity’s route will return to the smoother type of lake-deposited sandstone surface that it has previously driven across without incident. Farther ahead on the lower part of Mount Sharp are three geological features that have been target destinations for the mission since its landing site was selected.

One area contains hematite, an iron oxide mineral, that was detected from orbit. Just above it is a band rich in clay minerals, and beyond that is a series of layers that contain sulfur-bearing minerals called sulfates. By studying this diverse geological deposits, researchers hope to gain a better understanding of how long ancient environmental conditions remained favorable for the possibility of microbial life on Mars before conditions became drier and less favorable.

Video courtesy of NASA



Jim Sharkey is a lab assistant, writer and general science enthusiast who grew up in Enid, Oklahoma, the hometown of Skylab and Shuttle astronaut Owen K. Garriott. As a young Star Trek fan he participated in the letter-writing campaign which resulted in the space shuttle prototype being named Enterprise. While his academic studies have ranged from psychology and archaeology to biology, he has never lost his passion for space exploration. Jim began blogging about science, science fiction and futurism in 2004. Jim resides in the San Francisco Bay area and has attended NASA Socials for the Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity rover landing and the NASA LADEE lunar orbiter launch.

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