Curiosity rover completes the 'toughest climb' on Mars

This feat coincides with the rover's 11th year anniversary on Mars, which is marked on August 5.
Mrigakshi Dixit
The slope with a sharp 23-degree incline, slippery sand, and wheel-size rocks.
The slope with a sharp 23-degree incline, slippery sand, and wheel-size rocks.


NASA's car-sized Curiosity rover has recently accomplished climbing Jau, one of Mars' most challenging terrains. This feat coincides with the rover's 11th anniversary on Mars, marked on August 5. 

Jau is a cluster of a dozen impact craters in one location, the largest of which is the size of a basketball court. 

Jau was one of the stopovers on the rover's trip to explore Mars. According to NASA, Jau is located in the foothills of Mount Sharp, a 3-mile-tall (5-kilometer-tall) peak that may have once held lakes, rivers, and streams about billions of years ago.

“Each layer of the mountain formed in a different era of Mars’ ancient climate, and the higher Curiosity goes, the more scientists learn about how the landscape changed over time,” mentioned NASA. 

The arduous climb 

However, the trip up the hill slope presented its own set of obstacles, making it difficult for the ground team to navigate the rover on the alien, distant terrain. 

This slope is tough terrain, comprising a sharp 23-degree inclination, slippery sand, and wheel-size boulders on the path up.  

These obstacles made it difficult for the rover to ascend the hill while vexing Curiosity's drivers on Earth.

“If you’ve ever tried running up a sand dune on a beach – and that’s essentially what we were doing – you know it’s hard, but there were boulders in there as well,” said Amy Hale, a Curiosity rover driver at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California, in an official release. 

The Earth-based drivers do not move the rover in real-time, but rather follow a predetermined path laid out by 15 "rover planners." 

These engineers develop hundreds of lines of code for the rover's activities, like the locations rover will travel to, taking images of target regions and objects, and using science instruments to collect specific data. These instructions are relayed daily to the rover's mobility system and robotic arm. And after the assigned duties are performed, the rover provides the final report.

Regarding navigation, planners rely on various technologies and orbiters, like Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, to get an idea of the topography. 

However, writing codes for navigation is not straightforward; engineers need to consider the rugged terrain and any possible dangers (such as rocks or deep sands) in the rover's path. To enable the rover to navigate and traverse the alien landscape on its own smoothly. 

“The team doesn’t plan anything that could damage the rover, and the planners write commands so that Curiosity will stop moving if it encounters any surprises. Unexpected stoppages – referred to as 'faults' – can occur when the wheels slip too much or a wheel is raised too high by a large rock. On the route to Jau, the rover found itself in both scenarios on several occasions,” explained NASA. 

The detour plan

To overcome this hurdle, the mission team decided to take a detour from a location about 492 feet (150 meters) away and climb Mount Sharp.

The detour took a few weeks to reach Jau, but it paid off. 

“It felt great to finally get over the ridge and see that amazing vista. I get to look at images of Mars all day long, so I really get a sense of the landscape. I often feel like I’m standing right there next to Curiosity, looking back at how far it has climbed,” said Dane Schoelen, Curiosity’s strategic route planning lead at JPL.

Since this arduous climb, Curiosity's science team has completed an analysis of the Jau crater cluster. After some time, the rover and mission team will be ready to take on the next challenge, i.e., trek higher up on Mount Sharp to explore a new location.

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