Road trip on Mars: Thrill as Curiosity rover races up to 0.06 miles per hour. Marvel as it takes a mile-long detour

Trundle bot must dodge sand dunes in quest to find evidence of life on Red Planet

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NASA’s hardy Curiosity rover is on the move again: this time, a little road trip to avoid getting bogged down in Martian sand dunes.

The six-wheeled robot is investigating Mount Sharp, a sedimentary mountain whose layers of rock should give scientists a better idea of the watery world Mars once was. But to do so, it'll have to complete a mile-long detour to avoid the sand drift in the way... at the blazing speed of 82 to 328 feet (25 to 100 metres) per hour.

Its operators will carefully guide the rover as it tries to find the safest path and avoid getting stuck in the large patch of sand. The US space agency's boffins hope the experience will help them figure out ways to improve the bot's modest self-driving capabilities.

"Curiosity can't drive entirely without humans in the loop," said Matt Gildner, lead rover driver at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, this week. "But it does have the ability to make simple decisions along the way to avoid large rocks or risky terrain. It stops if it doesn't have enough information to complete a drive on its own."

Last month, NASA launched the crowdsourced AI4Mars tool, allowing netizens to examine pictures of the Martian surface and label them as featuring cohesive soil, high rocks, flat bedrock, or dangerous sand dunes. This labeled data will be used to train an AI navigation system for Curiosity.

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After spending more than a year in a clay-rich region in another part of Mount Sharp, the detour will allow Curiosity to ascend to the next layer of sedimentary rock and begin its investigations.

The “sulfate-bearing unit” layer should consist of encrusted minerals, such as gypsum and Epsom salts, that were left over on the Martian surface from the evaporation of water billions of years ago. Scientists believe that ancient rivers may have supported microbial life, and they may find evidence of this in the planet’s sediments.

Despite slightly wonky wheels, the rover can manage ascents. It climbed the steep slope to get to the Greenheugh Pediment, a large sandstone structure, in March, finding patterns of bumps as evidence that the area was once flooded with water.

“Nodules like these require water in order to form," said Alexander Bryk, a doctoral student at University of California, Berkeley who led the pediment detour. "We found some in the windblown sandstone on top of the pediment and some just below the pediment. At some point after the pediment formed, water seems to have returned, altering the rock as it flowed through it."

"Curiosity was designed to go beyond Opportunity's search for the history of water," Abigail Fraeman, who has served as deputy project scientist for both missions at JPL, added. "We're uncovering an ancient world that offered life a foothold for longer than we realized." ®

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