Curiosity faces the toughest test in 11 years on Mars

The Curiosity rover is slowly moving up the 4.82 km high Martian Mount Sharp. Mountains are interesting objects for research, because their slope and structure can reveal layers of material that have accumulated over time, like a geological archive. However, such complex ascents turn out to be great challenges for the rovers. Curiosity recently encountered a particularly steep and slippery slope, which became the most challenging test so far.

Curiosity rover. Source: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

The success of overcoming such a slope depends on several factors, including the angle of inclination, the presence of slippery sand and obstacles — large stones or sharp rocks. Curiosity navigators plan the safest route before traveling because, due to the long time it takes for the signal to pass between Earth and Mars, commands arrive with a significant delay. This makes it impossible to control the rover in real time and requires careful planning to prevent its possible damage.

Panorama of Mount Sharp, which the rover ascends. Photo: NASA

Although navigators diligently develop routes, sometimes Curiosity is not able to execute all commands due to unforeseen circumstances, for example, if a wheel slides or gets stuck on a large rock. In such cases, the rover is programmed to stop to avoid potential damage. Such situations are called defects.

During the last ascent, such defects became a frequent problem. To overcome this obstacle, the drivers decided on a small detour. Although it added a few weeks to the journey, it turned out to be safer and allowed Curiosity to continue to overcome the climb.

“It felt great to finally get over the ridge and see that amazing vista. I get to look at images of Mars all day long, so I really get a sense of the landscape. I often feel like I’m standing right there next to Curiosity, looking back at how far it has climbed,” said Curiosity’s head of strategic route planning, Dane Schoelen.

Earlier we told interesting facts about Curiosity.

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