Wednesday, August 20, 2014

NASA Mars Curiosity Rover Stalled by 'Hidden Valley' Sand Trap

Click on the picture to see the full image.

NASA’s Curiosity rover looks back to ramp with 4th drill site target at ‘Bonanza King’ rock outcrop in ‘Hidden Valley’ in this photo mosaic view captured on Aug. 6, 2014, Sol 711. 

Inset shows results of brushing on Aug. 17, Sol 722, that revealed gray patch beneath red dust. Note the rover’s partial selfie, valley walls, deep wheel tracks in the sand dunes and distant rim of Gale crater beyond the ramp. Navcam camera raw images stitched and colorized. 

Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Ken Di Lorenzo

This image, taken by NASA's Mars rover Curiosity in August 2014, looks across the northeastern end of sandy "Hidden Valley" to the lower slopes of Mount Sharp on the horizon.

Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

NASA's Mars rover Curiosity may have to choose a new route to the base of a huge Red Planet mountain.

The 1-ton Curiosity rover had been heading for Mount Sharp, a 3.4-mile-high (5.5 kilometers) mountain in the center of Mars' Gale Crater, via "Hidden Valley," a sandy swale that's about the length of a football field.

But Curiosity turned back shortly after entering the valley's northeastern end earlier this month, finding the sand surprisingly slippery, NASA officials said.

"We need to gain a better understanding of the interaction between the wheels and Martian sand ripples, and Hidden Valley is not a good location for experimenting," Curiosity project manager Jim Erickson, of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, said in a statement.

This photo taken on Aug. 12, 2014 by NASA's Curiosity Mars rover shows an outcrop that includes the "Bonanza King" rock under consideration as a drilling target.

Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

There is no way out of Hidden Valley save exits at its northeastern and southwestern ends, NASA officials said.

The mission team is now assessing possible alternative routes that would take Curiosity north of the valley.

The goal is to get Curiosity to Mount Sharp, which has been the rover's ultimate science destination since before its August 2012 touchdown.

Mission scientists want the six-wheeled robot to climb up through the mountain's foothills, reading a history in the rocks of Mars' transition from a warm and wet planet in the ancient past to the cold, dry world we know today.

The chief goal of the $2.5 billion Curiosity mission is to determine if the Red Planet could ever have supported microbial life.

The team has already checked off this goal, finding that an area near Curiosity's landing site called Yellowknife Bay was a habitable lake-and-stream system billions of years ago.

Researchers came to this conclusion last year after analyzing samples Curiosity drilled from two different rocks in Yellowknife Bay.

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