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Curiosity Update: NASA Mulls Sending The Rover Over A Sand Dune

This coming week will be a dramatic one for NASA's Curiosity rover: Hoping to get the vehicle onto smoother terrain, scientists will explore driving the rover over a three-foot sand dune and onto a valley with fewer hazards.

Remember, Curiosity is about the size of a Mini Cooper, but it's equipped with six tires and an advanced system designed to climb hills. The issue here is that something could be hiding underneath the sand.

As the BBC reports other rovers have gotten stuck in similar terrains:

"The team is mindful that Nasa's Spirit rover was lost in a sand trap in 2009.

"And the Opportunity rover, which has just celebrated 10 working years on the planet, very nearly went the same way in 2005 when it became stuck for several weeks in a deep dirt pile later dubbed "Purgatory Dune".

"Curiosity has already had one scuff at the base of the barrier, using a wheel to test the sand's consistency. The robot would have no problem managing the incline but mission planners will be concerned about the potential for any rocks hidden inside the dune to damage or snare Curiosity."

Remember the rover has already taken a beating up there. Its handlers discovered late last year that its aluminum tires were already showing some damage.

Currently, the rover is at the edge of the dune.

Guy Webster, a spokesman at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, says the team plans on first climbing a bit of the dune this week. After that, they'll look at the results and make a decision on whether to attempt the rest of the trek.

We'll leave you with two images the rover has taken of its potential path. First the long view:

A view of the dune from a distance.
A view of the dune from a distance.

Second, is one taken from the edge of the dune, where the rover is now waiting for instructions:

It's worth noting that if one vehicle can overcome odds, it's the Curiosity. After all, its landing on the Red Planet was an acrobatic high-wire act.

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Eyder Peralta
Eyder Peralta is NPR's East Africa correspondent based in Nairobi, Kenya.
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