NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory — Curiosity — has successfully crossed a sand dune standing between the rover and its final science destination.
It’s been 18 months since Curiosity stylishly landed in the vast Gale crater on Mars. But the “7 minutes of terror,” during which the spacecraft slowed from 13,200 miles per hour to a dead stop, wasn’t its last challenging feat.
Just last week Curiosity’s handlers agonized over whether or not to send the rover across a 3-foot-tall sand dune — an obstacle along an otherwise relatively smooth route to the foothills of “Mount Sharp,” the rover’s final science destination.
For the past several months, scientists have been seeking a more forgiving terrain, since rough rocks have been ripping holes into the rover’s six aluminum wheels. The smoother terrain beyond the sand dune — the so called “Dingo Gap” — provides such a pathway.
But first Curiosity had to overcome a potentially deep sand trap, an obstacle that couldn’t be taken lightly as it was the cause of the rover Spirit's demise in 2010. That rover never did escape and eventually froze to death while mired in a deep sand dune.
Curiosity’s flight controllers spent days carefully assessing the dune’s physical characteristics. They studied the above panorama and even commanded Curiosity to carry out a “toe dip” by gently rolling the large wheels back and forth over the crest in order to ensure it was safe to mount.
Once the dune was deemed safe, the team commanded the 1-ton rover to start the ascent. On February 6th, Curiosity successfully crossed the dune.
“I’m over the moon that I’m over the Dune,” Curiosity tweeted later that day.
The rover can now safely continue along a southwestward route to the lower slopes of the crater’s towering central mound. Mount Sharp is a stack of layered sediments that rises 3 miles (5 km) above the crater’s broad floor. It’s likely that the lowest layers were laid down more than 3 billion years ago.
As Curiosity climbs up the slopes, it will read a history of the Red Planet’s changing geologic conditions and help researchers understand when and how it transitioned from a wet habitable world to the dry inhospitable planet it is today. Ultimately the rover could answer the main science goal of its mission: was Mars ever suitable for life?
The rover has already seen huge success since its arrival in August 2012. After its initial descent, Curiosity spent a few months exploring a nearby expanse of exposed rock known as Yellowknife Bay. This proved to be the bottom of an ancient lake covered in mudstone.
The 5-mile trek to Mount Sharp will likely take many more months, bringing Curiosity there in the middle of this year. The rover will continue to work along the way, checking out rocks and other geologic features that look particularly interesting.