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Curiosity makes it to Mount Sharp on damaged wheels

Elizabeth Howell, News Writer
Sep 13, 2014, 15:25 UTC

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Sen—After taking a different path to its ultimate Red Planet science destination to save on wheel wear-and-tear, the Curiosity rover has safely arrived at Mount Sharp (Aeolis Mons), NASA announced on Thursday (11 September).

The six aluminum wheels on the rover were found in late 2013 to have far more wear than anticipated, with holes riddling their surface and putting driving over Mars' rocky terrain at risk. The agency has been trying to find softer routes for the rover to slow down problems with the wheels. In terms of the rover's journey to Mount Sharp, NASA chose to bring it further south than originally intended.

"Now that we've made it, we'll be adjusting the operations style from a priority on driving to a priority on conducting the investigations needed at each layer of the mountain," said Jennifer Trosper, Curiosity deputy project manager at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, in a statement.

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The Curiosity rover's proposed route up Mount Sharp (Aeolis Mons) as of September 2014. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona      

While the damaged wheels were a concern during the trek, NASA said they did not play into a decision to take an altered route across the mountain. Rather than going to a further-away entry point called Murray Buttes, Curiosity will instead begin its journey at an outcrop called Pahrump Hills.

NASA said it is because of "improved understanding" of the region's area after looking at several outcrops in the past year. Murray appears to be softer than other terrain in the region, and not preserving the signs of an impact as well. Nor is it as layered as other features near the bottom of the mountain.

This is not the first time that plans have changed in recent weeks. Curiosity was supposed to drill at an outcrop called Bonanza King, but that idea was abandoned after controllers determined the outcrop was at risk of moving unpredictably and putting the rover at risk.

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Curiosity's view at the base of Mount Sharp in September 2014, showing "Amargosa Valley". Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

Instead, Curiosity looked at the outcrop with other instruments and found high silicon content. Sulfate was also found in a second outcrop, which could have been an indication that the area was altered by water.

Curiosity's science mandate came under criticism from a NASA planetary review panel earlier this month, which said that the rover team was prioritizing driving to Mount Sharp over spending time at what could be more promising clay areas that will show signs of habitability.

The panel additionally said the science proposal lacked detail, and that a low number of samples had been taken during Curiosity's mission. The review did recommend that Curiosity receive more funding for its extended mission, however.