Curiosity Drives Backwards, Takes The Low Road To Protect Its Wheels

After crossing a sand dune from Dingo Gap into the less rugged Moonlight Valley, Curiosity looked back to photograph the scene. For scale the distance between the tracks is 9 feet (2.7 meters) and the dune is about 3 feet (1m) tall. Click to large version. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Have you ever taken a different way home just to avoid pothole-riddled roads? If so, you’re thinking just like the team driving the Mars Curiosity rover. Alarmed that the tough, air craft grade aluminum wheels were getting overly dinged up and punctured by sharp rocks, NASA commanded the rover to leave the higher ground, cross Dingo Gap (Feb. 6) and head for sandier, less rocky terrain.

This map shows the route driven and route planned for Curiosity from before reaching “Dingo Gap” (upper right) to the mission’s next science waypoint, “Kimberley” at  lower left. The poiint marked 547 is where the rover finished its long drive on Feb. 18. Click to enlarge. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona

On Tuesday, Feb. 18, the rover covered 329 feet (100.3 meters), the mission’s first long trek that used reverse driving and its farthest one-day advance in more than three months.

Closeup of one of Curiosity’s wheels taken by the Mars Hand Lens Imager camera on Feb. 21, 2014 showing numerous dings. Click to learn more about how the wheels work. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Driving backwards lessens wheel damage from sharp rocks and has been used – to different purposes – on both the Spirit Rover and Opportunity. Spirit was helped when one of its front wheels stopped working; Opportunity drives backwards half the time to distribute lubricant evenly in all wheels. I don’t recommend the backwards technique when dodging potholes in the earthly realm.

Curiosity’s got about 2/3 miles (1.1 km) of mostly valley travel until it reaches its next scientific waypoint “Kimberley”, named for the northwestern Australia region with very old rocks. A variety of different rock types meet at the location making it a great spot to use the sample-collection drill to gather and analyze powdered samples of new material.

Curiosity took this photograph on Feb. 21, 2014 somewhere between Violet Valley and Kylie. The sandy terrain still has its share of sharp rocks. Curiosity’s wheels were expected to take a battering, but NASA decided to be cautious to increase their life. Click to enlarge. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Curiosity has driven 937 feet (285.5 meters) since the Feb. 9 dune-crossing and a total of 3.24 miles (5.21 km) since its August 2012 landing.

Erosion-exposed mineral veins in Dingo Gap. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech