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Mars rocks taking toll on Curiosity Mars rover

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NASA's $2.5 billion Curiosity rover is having a rough go of things on Mars, literally. Mission control is paying a lot of attention on the rover's 6f wheels of late thanks to photos showing tears and holes in the rover's wheels, which are made of aluminum. The cause of the problem: jagged rocks in the Gale Crater area where the rover landed.

So, what does NASA plan to do about this?

Mission control is examining the feasibility of steering the rover along an alternate path. The bad news: this back-up route involves a trip across sand dunes and a valley. This change of plan would also entail canceling the trip to Mt Sharp, which was originally the rover's destination, in favor of another spot dubbed KMS-9 which, according to NASA, offers promising science potential, too.

However, these developments put NASA in a tough spot.

Fr starters, if Curiosity stays on its current course, there's no guarantee that the rover's wheels won't become so damaged that it could be immobilized. On the other hand, taking the new route will involve traversing a sand dune estimated to be about 3 feet high. Problem here: there's no guarantee that the rover can make it through the dune, either. A similar situation doomed the Spirit rover after it got stuck in sand back in 2009. NASA is also examining new driving techniques to hopefully lessen the impact o the rocks on the wheels. As of now, NASA is studying all of its options and no decision on what to do has been made just yet.

My take: for the 2020 Mars rover, stronger wheels should be on the list of upgrades.

For NASA, Curiosity represents the next generation of Mars rovers, serving as a successor to Spirit and Opportunity (landed 2004), which served as successors to Sojourner(landed 1997). Curiosity is due to land in August, 2012, during which it will attempt to discover whether Mars ever was home to/was once suitable for life. The 8 main objectives of the mission are as follows:

1. Determine the nature/amount of organic compounds
2. Identify the building blocks of life as we know it
3. Look for traces of past life
4. Investigate Martian geology
5. Discover how rocks/soils were formed
6. Assess atmospheric evolution
7. Try and understand the current water cycle
8. Identify the surface radiation from the Sun

In terms of what the rover has to offer, it is truly ambitious.

To start with, the rover will be powered nuclear, rather than solar energy like its predecessors, which means that Curiosity will be able to operate year-round. The rover will carry 3 cameras, a laser several spectrometers, a sampling tool, a radiation detector, atmospheric assessment tools, water detector, as well as navigation cameras designed to help the rover act autonomously by helping it avoid hazards on the Martian surface.

For NASA, there is a lot riding on Curiosity, far more tan the mission itself. For starters, Curiosity is set to be the last flagship missionfor the foreseeable future as these most ambitious missions, commonly costing over $1 billion, have been eliminated from NASA's future plans thanks to extensive budget cutsHowever, there is hope within NASA that a successful mission may spur the public to be more interested in planetary science. The hope: greater public support in planetary exploration will spur Congress to allocate more funding for NASA, which has seen its planetary science budget drastically cut in in recent years in a trend that will continue, in all probability, for the next decade or so.

For more info:
Universe Today

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