Mars Rover Curiosity’s Wheels Are Taking a Battering

The NASA robot continues to rove the unforgiving slopes of Mount Sharp, but dramatic signs of damage are appearing on its aluminum wheels.

NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

In 2013, earlier than expected signs of damage to Curiosity’s wheels were causing concern. Four years on and, unsurprisingly, the damage has gotten worse. The visible signs of damage have now gone beyond superficial scratches, holes and splits — on Curiosity’s middle-left wheel (pictured above), there are two breaks in the raised zigzag tread, known as “grousers.” Although this was to be expected, it’s not great news.

The damage, which mission managers think occurred some time after the last wheel check on Jan. 27, “is the first sign that the left middle wheel is nearing a wheel-wear milestone,” said Curiosity Project Manager Jim Erickson, at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, Calif., in a statement.

After the 2013 realization that Curiosity’s aluminum wheels were accumulating wear and tear faster than hoped, tests on Earth were carried out to understand when the wheels would start to fail. To limit the damage, new driving strategies were developed, including using observations from orbiting spacecraft to help rover drivers chart smoother routes.

It was determined that once a wheel suffers three grouser breaks, the wheel would have reached 60 percent of its useful life. Evidently, the middle left wheel is almost there. According to NASA, Curiosity is still on course for fulfilling its science goals regardless of the current levels of wheel damage.

“This is an expected part of the life cycle of the wheels and at this point does not change our current science plans or diminish our chances of studying key transitions in mineralogy higher on Mount Sharp,” added Ashwin Vasavada, Curiosity’s Project Scientist also at JPL.

While this may be the case, it’s a bit of a downer if you were hoping to see Curiosity continue to explore Mars many years beyond its primary mission objectives. Previous rover missions, after all, have set the bar very high — NASA’s Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity continues to explore Meridiani Planum over 13 years since landing in January 2004! But Curiosity is a very different mission; it’s bigger, more complex and exploring a harsher terrain, all presenting very different engineering challenges.

Currently, the six-wheeled rover is studying dunes at the Murray formation and will continue to drive up Mount Sharp to its next science destination — the hematite-containing “Vera Rubin Ridge.” After that, it will explore a “clay-containing geological unit above that ridge, and a sulfate-containing unit above the clay unit,” writes NASA.

Since landing on Mars in August 2012, the rover has accomplished an incredible array of science, adding amazing depth to our understanding of the Red Planet’s habitable potential. To do this, it has driven 9.9 miles (16 kilometers) — and she’s not done yet, not by a long shot.

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“Project M”? Let’s Not.

Doing for NASA what Star Wars did for sci-fi, send C3PO to the Moon! Huh?
Doing for NASA what Star Wars did for sci-fi, send C3PO to the Moon! Huh?

OK, so I have little idea about this project because there’s not much information circulating, but I hope it’s not real.

It looks like NASA’s Johnson Space Center is heading up a robotic mission to the Moon. No big surprises there as that plan is pretty much in alignment with the “Flexible Path” for the future of space exploration for the U.S. space agency. Also, now the Constellation Program has bitten the dust, we’re not going to see man return to the Moon any time soon.

So what’s the answer? Send a robot that looks like a human to the Moon instead!

As I said, there’s little information about “Project M” apart from what’s been posted on AmericaSpace:

Project M is a JSC Engineering Directorate led mission to put a lander on the moon with a robot within a 1,000 days starting Jan 1., 2010. “M” has significance in two ways. First, it is the Roman numeral for 1,000. And “M” is the first letter for “Moon”.

How is Project M different from past NASA projects?

  • No prime contractors.
  • No roadblocks.
  • Just use the best engineers in the world to get the job done on time.

There will be full press on this… including embedded media, full multimedia and social networking. Can you say “The Apprentice goes to Space?”

When will Project M begin? Next month? Next year? No, Project M has been “go” since Monday, November 9th.

But “M” is the first letter of “Missing the Point” too, but that hasn’t been mentioned.

The enthusiasm for a robotic mission to the lunar surface sounds fine and dandy, and it’s to be expected, but if they really intend to send a bipedal robotic man to the Moon within 1000 days, then NASA hasn’t learnt anything from the Constellation debacle. This smells like a publicity stunt with little to no direction and it would be a shame if serious funding is being put into it.

Could the bipedal robot just be a metaphor for the project? Possibly, but I’d have to question the common sense in doing that too.

Also, where’s the incentive (indeed urgency) to create a Manhattan Project-style group of engineers to rush this project to completion within 3 years? If the members of Project M think they can avoid the cumbersome red tape and cost overruns that NASA and its contractors have faced in the past, then great, but I don’t think that’s a reality for such an ambitious project that lacks direction.

Sure, there’s funding being ploughed into humanoid robot technology — such as the “Robonaut” that is being developed by JSC engineers and the car maker GM — but the real-world application of androids (robots designed to look and act like a human) is that they can assist human operators. Bipedal androids such as the one depicted in this promo video would be exploring (read: “picking up stones”) space by themselves. There are no humans working along side them and therefore no real reason to create them in the inefficient form of a human.

The human body isn’t exactly an optimized one for space exploration. The next robotic missions to the Moon and Mars will be rovers, with wheels, because guess what? That makes more sense than revolutionizing android technology, sending it to the Moon within 1000 days, only for it to fall over and not be able to stand back up. (I’m sure Project M would counter this argument and say that the technology would have matured to such an extent that the android would be able to stand up again, but why let it fall over at all?) The center of gravity needs to be low for stability and no matter how big you make a robot’s feet, it’s simply not going to be able to explore as efficiently as a wheeled or multi-legged all-terrain vehicle.

So, in short, I see this video as about as valuable as the ad-drawing Moon rover video. And we all know what I thought about that nonsense.

Source: NASAWatch, Universe Today