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Looking Toward the Open Road
By Jeffrey Marlow


Making Tracks on Mars
This image shows the tracks left by NASA's Curiosity rover on Aug. 22, 2012, as it completed its first test drive on Mars.

Now that Curiosity has successfully spun its wheels and started moving across the floor of Gale Crater, rover drivers are starting to dream bigger.

Matt Heverly is the Mars Science Laboratory's Mobility Systems Engineer, a position more colloquially known as the Lead Rover Driver. "The landing site is perfect in so many ways for mobility," he says, tilting his computer screen to point out the area's flat surface, small rocks, and seemingly coherent ground that supports the rover's weight.

Curiosity will continue to ease into the driving phase of the mission, plans include increasingly ambitious drives over the next several sols. Ultimately, Heverly is aiming for consistent traverses of about 328 feet (100 meters) per sol as the rover makes its way across the floor of Gale Crater.

"The soil is firm, great for mobility, and we should have smooth sailing ahead of us," he says. This is, of course, good news for the mission, but engineers like Heverly are by their nature interested in pushing the limits.

The real fun, according to Heverly, starts at the "Entry Point" - a gauntlet of fractured rocks and sand dunes at the base of Mount Sharp. In order to reach the scientific promised land of layered clays and sulfate rocks, Curiosity will be "going into the canyons, riding the dunes, climbing the mountains," says Heverly wistfully.

In order to test the capabilities of the robotic mountaineer, the engineering team constructed "Scarecrow," a scale model that exerts the same ground pressure (weight per unit area on the surface) on Earth as Curiosity does on Mars. Several months ago, they shipped out to the Mojave Desert to cruise the Dumont Dunes, mounds of tan-colored sand up to 500 feet tall.

The test drive was remarkable! This video, produced by JPL, shows Scarecrow moving methodically up steep slopes of sand. When all was said and done, the engineering team concluded that slopes up to 12.5 degrees were traversable. "Curiosity has slightly better traversability than the Mars Exploration Rovers," says Heverly. "We're confident we can get through the dunes if we need to."

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