Curiosity Rover Moving Onward to Martian Mountain Goal, Shuns Drilling and Slippery Dunes

NASA’s Curiosity rover abandons drill campaign at ‘Bonanza King’ rock outcrop after hammer test (inset at right) determined it was unsuitable as potential 4th drill site  in this photo mosaic view captured on Aug. 20, 2014, Sol 724.  Note the background of sand dune ripples and deep wheel tracks inside Hidden Valley that forced quick exit to alternate route forward. Navcam camera raw images stitched and colorized.  Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS/Ken Kremer-kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo

NASA’s Curiosity rover abandons drill campaign at “Bonanza King” rock outcrop after hammer test (inset at right) determined it was unsuitable as a potential fourth drill site, in this photo mosaic view captured on Aug. 20, 2014, Sol 724. Note the background of sand dune ripples and deep wheel tracks inside Hidden Valley that forced a quick exit to an alternate route forward. Navcam camera raw images stitched and colorized. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS/Ken Kremer-kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo

NASA’s Curiosity rover is moving onward to her Martian mountain climbing destination, shunning the hoped-for drill campaign at the “Bonanza King” rock outcrop after it was ultimately deemed unsafe as the robot’s potential fourth drill site on the Red Planet.

“Head for the hills!” Curiosity tweeted with glee on Tuesday, Sept. 2.

She’s been eyeing the mammoth mountain ever since her death-defying touchdown on the Red Planet two years ago, on Aug. 6, 2012, inside Gale Crater.

The six-wheeled robot is expected to arrive at the foothills of Mount Sharp before year’s end.

“Getting to Mount Sharp is the next big step for Curiosity and we expect that in the Fall of this year,” Dr. Jim Green, NASA’s Director of Planetary Sciences at NASA Headquarters, Washington, D.C., said in an interview, marking the second anniversary since touchdown.

Curiosity rover panorama of Mount Sharp captured on June 6, 2014 (Sol 651) during traverse inside Gale Crater. Note rover wheel tracks at left. She will eventually ascend the mountain at the ‘Murray Buttes’ at right later this year. Assembled from Mastcam color camera raw images and stitched by Marco Di Lorenzo and Ken Kremer. Credit: NASA/JPL/MSSS/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer-kenkremer.com

Curiosity rover panorama of Mount Sharp captured on June 6, 2014, (Sol 651) during traverse inside Gale Crater. Note rover wheel tracks at left. She will eventually ascend the mountain at the “Murray Buttes” at right later this year. Assembled from Mastcam color camera raw images and stitched by Marco Di Lorenzo and Ken Kremer. Credit: NASA/JPL/MSSS/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer-kenkremer.com

Why is she so anxious to reach the mountain?

“I’m driving towards these hills on Mars to do geology work & also search for clouds,” Curiosity elaborated.

The lower reaches of Mount Sharp are the rover’s ultimate driving objective because the sedimentary layers are believed to hold caches of water-altered minerals, based on high-resolution mapping measurements obtained by the CRISM spectrometer aboard NASA’s powerful Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) soaring overhead.

Such minerals could possibly indicate locations that sustained potential Martian life forms, past or present, if they ever existed.

Humongous Mount Sharp dominates the center of Gale Crater and towers some 3.4 miles (5.5 km) into the Martian sky.

“Exploring the mountain will be like traveling backwards in a time machine,” Green explained.

However, Curiosity has had to alter her planned traverse route to minimize contact with sharp-edged, wheel-damaging rocks and to escape a potential Martian death trap of slippery sand dunes in a picturesque valley the length of a football field, named “Hidden Valley.”

In fact, Curiosity’s handlers commanded her to quit moving across the sand ripples of “Hidden Valley” and make an about-face to drive away from a potential science drilling destination at the valley’s end, known as “Pahrump Hills.”

Curiosity was forced to exit Hidden Valley at the risk of becoming mired in the slippery sands and suffer a deadly fate, similar to the Spirit rover.

“After further analysis of the sand, Hidden Valley does not appear to be navigable with the desired degree of confidence,” said Curiosity Project Manager Jim Erickson of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., in a statement.

“We will use a route avoiding the worst of the sharp rocks as we drive slightly to the north of Hidden Valley.”

Then, on the up-ramp leading out of Hidden Valley, the team noticed some enticing outcrops at a spot called “Bonanza King” and decided to consider it as a make-up for skipping drilling at “Pahrump Hills.”

NASA’s Curiosity rover looks back to ramp with abandoned 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 Kremer-kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo

NASA’s Curiosity rover looks back to ramp with abandoned fourth 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 a 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 Kremer-kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo

“Bonanza King” was quite interesting because the outcrop possessed thin, white, cross-cutting mineral veins which could indicate that liquid water flowed there in the distant past.

Although the initial rock brushing with the Dust Removal Tool (DRT) went well, the rock ultimately failed the hammer test when the rover’s software sensed the outcrop moved and was therefore unstable and not safe for full-depth drilling.

“We have decided that the rocks under consideration for drilling, based on the tests we did, are not good candidates for drilling,” said Erickson.

“Instead of drilling here, we will resume driving toward Mount Sharp.”

Curiosity has departed Hidden Valley and may yet find a suitable drill target.

Curiosity rover looks back to the rocky plains of the Zabriskie plateau from sandy ramp into ‘Hidden Valley’ as shown in this photo mosaic view captured on Aug. 14, 2014, Sol 719.  Sharp edged rocks at Zabriskie ripped new holes into rover wheels.   Navcam camera raw images stitched and colorized.  Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer-kenkremer.com

Curiosity rover looks back to the rocky plains of the Zabriskie plateau from sandy ramp into “Hidden Valley” as shown in this photo mosaic view captured on Aug. 14, 2014, Sol 719. Sharp-edged rocks at Zabriskie ripped new holes into the rover’s wheels. Navcam camera raw images stitched and colorized. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer-kenkremer.com

Indeed, the team reports that she may wind up at the “Pahrump Hills” after all.

“We are working our way towards the bright patch of rocks known as the ‘Pahrump Hills’,” said Curiosity scientist Lauren Edgar in an update yesterday.

It’s really important to drill at several locations on the crater floor before scaling the mountain, in order to establish the true history of this pristine spot on the Red Planet.

“Drilling on the crater floor will provide needed geologic context before Curiosity climbs the mountain,” Green explained.

Curiosity still has about another 2 miles (3 kilometers) to go to reach the entry way at a gap in the potentially treacherous dunes at the foothills of Mount Sharp sometime later this year.

So far, Curiosity’s odometer totals over 5.5 miles (9.0 kilometers) since landing inside Gale Crater on Mars in August 2012. She has taken over 183,000 images during 739 Sols of exploration.

The main map here shows the assortment of landforms near the location of NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover around the rover’s second anniversary of landing on Mars. The gold traverse line entering from upper right ends at Curiosity’s position as of Sol 705 on Mars (July 31, 2014). The inset map shows the mission’s entire traverse from the landing on Aug. 5, 2012, PDT (Aug. 6, EDT) to Sol 705, and the remaining distance to long-term science destinations near Murray Buttes, at the base of Mount Sharp. The label “Aug. 5, 2013″ indicates where Curiosity was one year after landing. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona

The main map here shows the assortment of landforms near the location of NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover around the rover’s second anniversary of landing on Mars. The gold traverse line entering from upper right ends at Curiosity’s position as of Sol 705 on Mars (July 31, 2014). The inset map shows the mission’s entire traverse from the landing on Aug. 5, 2012, PDT, (Aug. 6, EDT) to Sol 705, and the remaining distance to long-term science destinations near Murray Buttes, at the base of Mount Sharp. The label “Aug. 5, 2013″ indicates where Curiosity was one year after landing. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona

Stay tuned here for continuing updates.

Ken Kremer

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