Curiosity Skips Drilling, Resumes Mount Sharp Trek after Pounding Slippery Rock at Martian Valley of Slippery Sands

NASA’s Curiosity rover will skip drilling into a possible 4th rock target and instead resume the trek to Mount Sharp after finding it was unfortunately a slippery rock at the edge of a Martian valley of slippery sands and was therefore too risky to proceed with deep drilling and interior sampling for chemical analysis.

After pounding into the “Bonanza King” rock outcrop on Wednesday, Aug. 20, to evaluate its potential as Curiosity’s 4th drill target on Mars and seeing that it moved on impact, the team decided it was not even safe enough to continue with the preliminary ‘mini-drill’ operation that day.

So they cancelled the entire drill campaign at “Bonanza King” and decided to set the rover loose to drive onwards to her mountain climbing destination.

This image from the front Hazcam on NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover shows the rover’s drill in place during a test of whether the rock beneath it, “Bonanza King,” would be an acceptable target for drilling to collect a sample. Subsequent analysis showed the rock budged during the Aug. 19, 2014, test. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

“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, California, in a statement.

“Instead of drilling here, we will resume driving toward Mount Sharp.”

Bonanza King was an enticing target because the outcrop possessed thin, white, cross-cutting mineral veins which could indicate that liquid water flowed here in the distant past. Water is a prerequisite for life as we know it.

Loose, unstable rocks pose a prospective hazard to the 1 ton robots hardware and health if they become dislodged during impact by the percussive drill located at the end of the robotic arm.

It’s worth recalling that whirling rocks during the nailbiting Red Planet touchdown two years ago on Aug. 6, 2012, inside Gale Crater are suspected to have slightly damaged Curiosity’s REMS meteorological instrument station.

Each drill target must pass a series of tests. And the prior three at more extensive outcrops all met those criteria. By comparison, imagery showed Bonanza King was clearly part of a much smaller outcrop. See our Bonanza King photo mosaics herein.

NASA’s Curiosity rover looks back to ramp with potential 4th drill site target at ‘Bonanza King’ rock outcrop in ‘Hidden Valley’ in this photo mosaic view captured on Aug. 6, 2014, Sol 711. Inset shows results of brushing on Aug. 17, Sol 722, that revealed gray patch beneath red dust. Note the rover’s partial selfie, valley walls, deep wheel tracks in the sand dunes and distant rim of Gale crater beyond the ramp. Navcam camera raw images stitched and colorized. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Ken Di Lorenzo

“One step in the procedure, called “start hole,” uses the hammering action of the percussive drill to create a small indentation in the rock. During this part of the test, the rock moved slightly, the rover sensed that instability in the target, and protective software properly halted the procedure,” according to a NASA statement.

This pale, flat Martian rock thus failed to pass the team’s safety criteria for drilling when it budged.

Bonanza King sits in an bright outcrop on the low ramp at the northeastern end of a spot leading in and out of an area called “Hidden Valley” which lies between Curiosity’s August 2012 landing site in Gale Crater and her ultimate destinations on Mount Sharp which dominates the center of the crater.

Just days ago, the rover team commanded a quick exit from “Hidden Valley” to backtrack out of the dune filled valley because of fears the six wheeled robot could get stuck in slippery sands extending the length of a football field.

“Hidden Valley” looked like it could turn into “Death Valley.”

As Curiosity tested the outcrop, the rover team was simultaneously searching for an alternate safe path forward to the sedimentary layers of Mount Sharp because she arrived at Hidden Valley after recently driving over a field of sharp edged rocks in the “Zabriskie Plateau” that caused further rips and tears in the already damaged 20 inch diameter aluminum wheels.

It will take a route skirting the north side of the sandy-floored valley taking care to steer away from the pointiest rocks.

Curiosity rover looks back to the rocky plains of the Zabriskie plateau from sandy ramp into ‘Hidden Valley’ with 4th drill site target at ‘Bonanza King’ rock outcrop as shown in this photo mosaic view captured on Aug. 14, 2014, Sol 719. Sharp edged rocks at Zabriskie tore new holes into rover wheels. Navcam camera raw images stitched and colorized. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken

“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.”

To date, Curiosity’s odometer totals over 5.5 miles (9.0 kilometers) since landing inside Gale Crater on Mars in August 2012. She has taken over 179,000 images.

Curiosity still has about another 2 miles (3 kilometers) to go to reach the entry way at a gap in the treacherous sand dunes at the foothills of Mount Sharp sometime later this year.

Hidden Valley gives a foretaste of the rippely slippery sand dune challenges lurking ahead!

Mount Sharp is a layered mountain that dominates most of Gale Crater and towers 3.4 miles (5.5 kilometers) into the Martian sky and is taller than Mount Rainier.

“Getting to Mount Sharp is the next big step for Curiosity and we expect that in the Fall of this year,” Dr. Jim Green, NASA’s Director of Planetary Sciences at NASA Headquarters, Washington, DC, told me in an interview marking the 2nd anniversary since touchdown on Aug. 6.

“Drilling on the crater floor will provide needed geologic context before Curiosity climbs the mountain.”

The team may go back to its original plan to drill at the potential science destination known as “Pahrump Hills” which was changed due to the route change forced by the slippery sands in Hidden Valley.

The main map here shows the assortment of landforms near the location of NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover as the rover’s second anniversary of landing on Mars nears. The gold traverse line entering from upper right ends at Curiosity’s position as of Sol 705 on Mars (July 31, 2014). The inset map shows the mission’s entire traverse from the landing on Aug. 5, 2012, PDT (Aug. 6, EDT) to Sol 705, and the remaining distance to long-term science destinations near Murray Buttes, at the base of Mount Sharp. The label “Aug. 5, 2013” indicates where Curiosity was one year after landing. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona

Read an Italian language version of this story by my imaging partner Marco Di Lorenzo – here

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Rosetta, Curiosity, Opportunity, Orion, SpaceX, Boeing, Orbital Sciences, Dream Chaser, commercial space, MAVEN, MOM, Mars and more planetary and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

Curiosity rover panorama of Mount Sharp captured on June 6, 2014 (Sol 651) during traverse inside Gale Crater. Note rover wheel tracks at left. She will eventually ascend the mountain at the ‘Murray Buttes’ at right later this year. Assembled from Mastcam color camera raw images and stitched by Marco Di Lorenzo and Ken Kremer. Credit: NASA/JPL/MSSS/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken
Up close view of hole in one of rover Curiosity’s six wheels caused by recent driving over rough Martian rocks. Mosaic assembled from Mastcam raw images taken on Dec. 22, 2013 (Sol 490). Credit: NASA/JPL/MSSS/Ken Kremer – Di Lorenzo
Ken Kremer

Dr. Ken Kremer is a speaker, research scientist, freelance science journalist (KSC area,FL) and photographer whose articles, space exploration images and Mars mosaics have appeared in magazines, books, websites and calendars including Astronomy Picture of the Day, NBC, FOX, BBC,, Spaceflight Now, Science and the covers of Aviation Week & Space Technology, Spaceflight and the Explorers Club magazines. Ken has presented at numerous educational institutions, civic & religious organizations, museums and astronomy clubs. Ken has reported first hand from the Kennedy Space Center, Cape Canaveral, NASA Wallops, NASA Michoud/Stennis/Langley and on over 80 launches including 8 shuttle launches. He lectures on both Human and Robotic spaceflight - Follow Ken on Facebook and Twitter

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