Curiosity, don't get stuck! NASA rover set for dangerous trek

NASA officials hope Curiosity won't suffer same sandy fate as robotic predecessor Spirit

NASA's Mars rover Curiosity is set to take a dangerous journey this week.

The robotic rover is preparing for a drive over a sand dune to get to a valley with fewer sharp rocks and other hazards. Getting safely over the dune is a hazard all on its own, though, NASA officials say.

This move has to bring up some bad memories for some veterans on NASA's robotic rover team.

In 2010, one of Curiosity's predecessors, Spirit, became stuck in sand while traveling near the edge of a plateau dubbed Home Plate by NASA. The rover's wheels broke through the crusty surface and got stuck in some soft, salty sand underneath.

NASA engineers worked for months to find a way to get the rover free, but couldn't do it.

The agency abandoned the rescue effort early in 2011.

Spirit's twin Mars rover, Opportunity recently marked its tenth year of working on Mars.

NASA engineers are working to make sure Curiosity doesn't suffer the same fate Spirit did.

The space agency's plan calls for Curiosity to drive to the top of the dune, which is about three feet tall at its highest point, this week. Once at the top of the dune, the rover will take images of the valley in front of it so NASA engineers can decide if it can proceed down the dune and into the valley.

NASA has not said how engineers will try to keep Curiosity from getting mired in loose sand.

Curiosity, a plutonium-powered robotic rover the size of a small SUV, landed on the Martian surface in August, 2012 to begin a two-year primary mission.

Just a month after landing on Mars, the rover discovered evidence of what scientists called a "vigorous" thousand-year water flow on the Martian surface.

That was a critical, and early, discovery since Curiosity's primary mission is to find evidence of whether Mars has -- or ever had -- the ability to support life, even in microbial form.

Curiosity later found that there is water in the Martian soil today.

Sharon Gaudin covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld. Follow Sharon on Twitter at @sgaudin, or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed . Her email address is sgaudin@computerworld.com.

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