Despite the risks, it looks like Curiosity is going for it!
After a few days of making sure that they weren't going to be getting their prized robot rover in trouble, the team at NASA has decided to drive Curiosity through the roughly 1-metre-deep sand dune seen above, which spans what the team is calling Dingo Gap, on its way towards new targets for its science investigations. The rover will spend a few more days on this side of the dune, to examine both the rocks there and the dune itself, and then it will proceed across later in the week.
That may seem like a lot of deep thought about a pile of sand, but rovers on Mars haven't exactly had the best of luck with sand in the past. Opportunity got stuck in a sand dune for nearly a month and a half in 2005, and Spirit was eventually lost because it got trapped in a sand pit in May of 2009. Curiosity's wheels are roughly twice the size of those on Opportunity and Spirit (both in width and diameter), so it stands a much better chance of traversing the dune safely. However, consider this a 'twice bitten, thrice shy' situation. When you're working with a robot that cost a couple of billion dollars to build and get where it is, you want to be extra careful, just to be sure.
One of the reasons the team contemplated this particular route in the first place is due to the beating Curiosity's wheels have been taking from the Martian landscape. Rocks here on Earth have had plenty of wind and water to wear them down to be slightly more forgiving on our vehicles. On Mars, it's been a very long time since there was an abundance of flowing liquid water on the surface, and although wind speeds can get pretty high there, the atmosphere just isn't thick enough for that to have a real effect.
So, driving over the sharp, jagged rocks littering the floor of Gale Crater, Curiosity's aluminum wheels have been gathering dents, dings and even some cracks. This was expected as part of the wear and tear on the rover, but since NASA wants it to last as long as possible, they're taking as much care as they can with planning what routes it drives along.
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Curiosity taking this 'sand route' instead of the more rocky path brings to mind a similar choice made by a certain gold-finished protocol droid from one of my favourite sci-fi movies. It's a bit of a toss-up whether that was the best option to take in the movie (picked up after wandering through desert sands vs being zapped by an ion blaster), but here in reality, this is probably the best choice for the 1-ton, nuclear-powered rover.
(Images courtesy: NASA/JPL-Caltech, NASA/JPL/MSSS/Ken Kremer)
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