Curiosity Does Drilling U-Turn on Wobbly Mars Rock

Despite its name, one Mars rock isn’t about to enrich NASA’s Mars rover Curiosity with a cascade of science.

After a drilling test last week on a Mars rock dubbed “Bonanza King,” Mars Science Laboratory mission managers noticed that the rock was unstable. So to avoid any unnecessary risk to the rover’s robotic arm-mounted drilling tools, further drilling work in the area was canceled.

ANALYSIS: Curiosity Scrubs Mars Rock, Possible Drilling Target

Previous to the wobbly discovery, Bonanza King was cleaned by Curiosity’s surface abrasion tool, which cleared off a layer of oxidized dust. In the rock is an interesting vein of white material — possibly sulfate salts — but, alas, Curiosity won’t be sampling any of the rock’s hidden secrets.

“We have decided that the rocks under consideration for drilling, based on the tests we did, are not good candidates for drilling,” said Curiosity Project Manager Jim Erickson of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif. “Instead of drilling here, we will resume driving toward Mount Sharp.”

PHOTOS: Curiosity Snaps Selfies, Begins Mars Rock Drill

The drilling test was carried out by Curiosity’s percussion tool, which acts like a small chisel by making an indentation in the rock’s surface. But during the impacts, the rock moved slightly. With the previous three successful drilling targets, the rocks were part of more extensive outcrops that provided stability. Bonanza King and the other potential targets in Curiosity’s current location are simply too wobbly for a safe drill.

This is only the latest challenge Curiosity has faced during its epic journey to the 3.4 mile (5.5 kilometer) high Aeolis Mons (known as “Mount Sharp”). Earlier this month, the six-wheeled rover began driving through “Hidden Valley” on its way to Bonanza King, but it experienced some wobbliness itself as it tried to trundle over loose sand.

PHOTOS: Mars Wear and Tear: Curiosity’s Wheel Damage

“After further analysis of the sand, Hidden Valley does not appear to be navigable with the desired degree of confidence,” Erickson said. “We will use a route avoiding the worst of the sharp rocks as we drive slightly to the north of Hidden Valley.”

Since landing on Mars in 2012, Curiosity has notched up an impressive 5.5 miles (8.8 kilometers) of hard Mars driving that has taken its toll on the rover’s wheels. However, there’s only another 2 to 3 miles until Curiosity reaches Mount Sharp’s lower slopes, a goal that is just within reach.


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