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Curiosity abandons sandy slope for the hard route, but not before pausing for some 'Bonanza King' science!

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Scott Sutherland
Meteorologist/Science Writer

Tuesday, August 19, 2014, 2:24 PM - Denied an easy ride through the sand, NASA's Mars Curiosity rover will soon be forced to carefully pick her way across more jagged, rocky terrain. However, before the science team puts her through that, they're first taking a breather to conduct a little science.

After passing its second Earth-year on the planet Mars, NASA's Curiosity rover had been preparing to enter 'Hidden Valley', a sand-filled valley on the rover's route to the base of Mt. Sharp, that would have given her a break from the wheel-punishing rocky terrain for a bit longer. However, as her handlers guided her down into the valley, Curiosity suffered enough slippage in the sand that it very likely invoking fears about what happened to the Spirit rover several years ago. The team here on Earth decided that it wasn't worth the risk of Curiosity becoming trapped, so they reversed her out of there while they still could, and made plans to cross the hard, rocky plateau they were originally trying to avoid.

However, when you have a billion-dollar mobile science lab roving around on a neighbouring planet, the last thing you want to do is waste an opportunity to do science. So, since they'd spent time here surveying the environment, the science team chose a rocky outcropping, which they named 'Bonanza King', and are using it as the latest target for Curiosity's drill.

Here's a NavCam view of the rover's current position, stitched together and colourized by Ken Kramer and Marco Di Lorenzo, with the location of the Bonanza King outcrop pointed out.


Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Ken Kremer-kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo

Prepped drill target rock at 'Bonanza King' outcrop,
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

Rolling back to the outcrop, Curiosity deployed the brush tool on the end of her arm to clear away the oxidized dust and debris from one particular rock, revealing the blue-grey basalt underneath. 

With the surface cleared of potential contaminants, she will next use a small test drill on that rock, to see if the powder produced will be good to run through her on-board analysis tools (apparently the powder from some rocks clumps together).

If the test drilling works out, she'll use the main drill to bore deep down into the rock, gather dust and scoop it into her SAM instrument for analysis. That will tell the science team the chemical composition of the rock, including the veins running through it, and give hints at what the environment was like when the rock was formed and when it was deposited at the Bonanza King location.



MARS SCIENCE!: Check out the greatest discoveries of the Mars Curiosity rover since its August 2012 arrival on the Red Planet!



Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS/Emily Lakdawalla

As mentioned above, the main reason for the sandy detour into Hidden Valley was to reduce the amount of punishment Curiosity's wheels are taking on its journey. The image to the left is a snapshot of Curiosity's left front wheel, taken on Sol 713 (August 9, 2014), as an example of the scars, punctures and large tears the jagged Martian rocks has been inflicting.

For the latest update on Curiosity's wheels, head over to Emily Lakdawalla's awesome blog entry on The Planetary Society website. She gives a great, easy to read description of how Curiosity's wheels were designed to deal with the Martian terrain, and answers the top questions that have been asked about this issue - how much damage they've sustained and why, how long the wheels are expected to last and how can the team extend that lifetime, and even about why this was such an unforeseen problem, and how it will be corrected in the Mars 2020 mission. Check it out!

The Top Five discoveries about Mars brought to us by two years of science by NASA's Curiosity rover
How does NASA's Curiosity rover take such incredible pictures?
The exciting future of Mars exploration: In orbit, on the surface and inside the planet
Incredible new geological map of Mars will guide our investigation for years to come

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