'Knife-Edged Rocks' on Mars Force Curiosity Rover to Change Paths

This Article is part of The Red Planet, our series on Mars. {alertSuccess}

Curiosity, NASA's rover, is already a seasoned mountain climber. Mount Sharp, the central peak in the Gale Crater on Mars, has been slowly pushing its way up the lower layers. However, as all pioneering mountain climbers know, you must occasionally reevaluate your path and locate a better, safer alternative.

Curiosity ran into "knife-edged rocks" in a location known as "gatorback" terrain on the Greenheugh Pediment, a sloped plateau with a craggy crown of unusual sandstone characteristics, NASA revealed on Thursday. The rover was exploring the area and planning to keep going until it's crew spotted what turned out to be a strange village of rocks. Curiosity has turned around and will seek another path.

"It was obvious from Curiosity's photos that this would not be good for our wheels," Megan Lin, Curiosity project manager at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said in a statement. "It would be slow going, and we wouldn't have been able to implement rover-driving best practices."

Curiosity's aluminum wheels have drawn a lot of attention. The rover's wheels have taken a battering since it first landed in 2012, but changes to the routes and how the rover performs its drives are extending their lives. They may appear worn, but the rover team anticipates that they will endure the duration of the expedition.

Mount Sharp is at a height of 3.4 miles (5.5 kilometers). Due to exposed layers of soil and a history of water in ancient Martian eras, it's a hotspot for investigation. Curiosity is attempting to determine whether Mars was once hospitable for microbial life. The rover's mission is to explore Mount Sharp's interesting lower reaches rather than top it. 

"The gator-back rocks aren't impassable," NASA said. "They just wouldn't have been worth crossing, considering how difficult the path would be and how much they would age the rover's wheels."

Curiosity's new exploring path isn't always a bad thing. It will transport the adventurer to a fascinating transition zone. "Seeing rocks that represented a time when lakes were drying up and being replaced by streams and dry sand dunes was incredibly interesting," said Abigail Fraeman, JPL's Curiosity deputy project scientist. "I'm excited to see what we discover as we continue climbing on this alternate route." 

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