NASA Mars Curiosity Rover Experiencing Terrain Difficulties on Red Planet

First Posted: Feb 01, 2014 02:12 PM EST

Last month marked the tenth anniversary of NASA's Opportunity over on Mars. While Opportunity has been operating efficiently and making discoveries for over ten years, though, the Curiosity rover is experiencing significant wheel damage in its second year.

Over the last few months NASA engineers have sought to minimize the wear and tear on Curiosity's wheels as it has increasingly experienced damage on the terrain it's exploring. For now, the rover's operators are driving Curiosity more cautiously while checking its wheels more often.

Engineers at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) are experimenting with new strategies to decrease the wheel damage, such as driving Curiosity backward and using four out of the six wheels, cycling out a new pair as needed.

Curiosity's next destination is Mount Sharp, a 3-mile high mountain located in the Gale Crater. Its current path is in the middle of driving over rocky terrain to reach the base of Mount Sharp. The scientists want Curiosity to climb up Mount Sharp's rocky foothills, so they are trying to preserve its mechanical well being by possibly having it drive over a 3-foot-tall sand dune in hopes of accessing smoother terrain.

"The decision hasn't been made yet, but it is prudent to go check," Curiosity project manager Jim Erickson, of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., said in a statement in this Live Science article. "We'll take a peek over the dune into the valley immediately to the west to see whether the terrain looks as good as the analysis of orbital images implies," Erickson added, referring to pictures snapped by NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.

Scientists are currently weighing this decision while they're examining more photos taken by Curiosity. Perhaps the rover can learn a lesson from its counterpart, Opportunity, which has traveled 24 miles since landing in 2004 compared to Curiosity's 3.04 miles since landing in 2012.

To read more about the Curiosity rover, visit this Live Science article.

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