If you’re going to go through the effort of sending a mechanical explorer millions of miles across the galaxy, all the way to Mars, you better make damn sure it has the appropriate traction and can function in adverse conditions. NASA recently ran into just this problem with their Curiosity rover, which just got stuck in a sand trap, and no, it’s not the same kind of sand trap you hit your golf ball into last weekend. Curiosity has a job to do, it doesn’t have time to hit the links.
The one-ton rover is in the process of heading to Mount Sharp, which has been its ultimate destination all along, despite the meandering, roundabout route. At 3.4 miles high, the peak sits in the middle of Mars’ Gale Crater, and in order to access the site, Curiosity planned a path through the Hidden Valley (no salad dressing jokes please).
Roughly the length of a football field, Hidden Valley isn’t super imposing size wise, but earlier this month it did prove a formidable foe, one that Curiosity wasn’t able to best. In fact, the sandy environment was so slippery and impassable that earlier this month the six-wheeled robot was forced back and will have to set another course.
Jim Erickson, the Curiosity project manager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory 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.”
You definitely don’t want to get stuck out there all alone, AAA doesn’t do Mars.
Rerouting, however, is going to prove to be a major pain in the ass for the space agency. There’s no easy way in or out of Hidden Valley, and at the moment the team is making plans that will likely take Curiosity north of the sand covered depression, far out of the way.
At a cost of $2.5 billion, the primary long-term goal of this mission is to examine the Martian surface and hopefully conclude whether or not the Red Planet was ever host to microbial life, a goal that has already been reached. When the rover came across an area near Yellowknife Bay back in August 2012, where it landed, it discovered that the site played host to a system of streams and lakes, which could have been habitable.
Mount Sharp is the ultimate destination for this trip. The research team hopes to ascend the foothills and get a better idea of the planet’s environmental history, and determine how it changed from a potentially habitable world to a cold, dry, dusty son of a bitch of a planet.
Hopefully the JPL team will figure out a way around Hidden Valley and be able to get the mission back on track in short order. It sounds like they have options open to them, even if they will take more time.