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4 Feb, 2014 16:16

NASA’s curiosity Mars rover to risk climbing sand dune

NASA’s curiosity Mars rover to risk climbing sand dune

A new photo from the Mars Curiosity rover shows it on the edge of a sand dune and US engineers have decided to risk driving Curiosity over the dune so it can continue to an area of fresh bedrock known as KMS-9 to do some drilling.

In order to get to the area engineers have called KMS-9, Curiosity will have to enter a small valley known as the Dingo Gap and navigate a one meter high sand dune.

The dune is about one meter high in the middle and tapers to the south and north on either side of the Dingo Gap.

The mission control team “operating Curiosity has chosen this valley as a likely route toward mid-term and long-term science destinations,” writes NASA in a brief press release beneath one of the recent photos from curiosity.

Earlier NASA officials had written that there was some uncertainly over Curiosity’s future route.

"The rover team is evaluating possible driving routes on the other side before [making] a decision [about] whether [to] cross the gap," NASA officials wrote in a description of the image.

However, engineers cannot predict what is going to happen when curiosity begins the ascent of the dune. Mission planners will be concerned about rocks hidden just below the surface, or the possibility of Curiosity getting beached in a sand trap.

Curiosity weighs about one ton, so there’s also the risk that she might sink into the sand and get stuck.

Photo: NASA

NASA will be taking the climb cautiously and Curiosity will climb just part of the way up the dune as a test, Curiosity has already pressed an inquisitive wheel into the base of the dune.

NASA’s Spirit Rover was lost to a sand trap in 2009 and Opportunity Rover, which has just celebrated its 10th anniversary on the Red Planet, almost went the same way when it got stuck for several weeks in a pile of Martian dirt, which controllers dubbed the “Purgatory Dune.”

Engineers are also concerned about the effect of the tough Martian terrain on Curiosity’s aluminum wheels, which have taken a battering. Recent pictures show multiple punctures, dents and dimples in the 50cm-diameter wheels.

Once over the sand dune, Curiosity will proceed through the two scarps called the Dingo Gap and then head towards KMS-9, where scientists will try and drill into freshly exposed bedrock to try and find any traces of carbon which may signify microscopic traces of life, which existed billions of years ago.

Her ultimate goal is to reach the foothills of a huge mountain, Mount Sharp, but this is still several kilometers away to the south west.

Curiosity landed on Mars in August 2012 and has so far clocked up 5 kilometers.

The foreground dune, at a location called "Dingo Gap," is about 3 feet (1 meter) high in the middle and tapered at south and north ends onto low scarps on either side of the gap.