Curiosity, the Mars rover that's been tooling around the red planet since 2012 normally has a meticulously planned route. There is no "go where the wind takes you" attitude among Rover Planners at the NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Quite the opposite. The route is planned to maximize the rover's power capacity, and research as many of the topographical features of Mars as possible.
Last year the rover reached the bottom of Mount Sharp. The planned route was to explore that area, as well as an adjacent area known as "Pahrump Hills." From there scientists had set its course to head for an area known as "Logan Pass." It's this area where the rover's long robotic arm will be used to deposit science instruments (a first for the rover) on an area it's not able to reach, so that data can be collected from the surface where the instruments come in contact with the soil.
Recently however the team decided to have the rover make a detour from it's appointed rounds. What was the attraction? Images from the rover's MastCam caught the eye of some of the scientists.
To the northwest of the mapped route that the rover was following, there was a small rise, known as Mount Shields. There were some unusual characteristics on this rise that scientists had not seen before. Based on the images and after a careful study of the everything the detour would involve, the team decided that late April would be a good time to divert the rover to the area.
In a statement issued by the JPL, Project Scientist Ashwin Vasavada said, "In pictures we took on the way from Pahrump Hills toward Logan Pass, some of the geologists on the team noticed a feature that looked like what's called an 'incised valley fill,' which is where a valley has been cut into bedrock and then filled in with other sediment."
"It's exciting to see this on Mars for the first time," he continued. "Features like this on Earth capture evidence of change. What in the environment changed to go from depositing one kind of sediment, to eroding it away in a valley, to then depositing a different kind of sediment? It's a fascinating puzzle that Mars has left for us."
While it was an unplanned detour, scientists did still carefully consider where, and for how long the rover would deviate from the route. The decision to send the rover over on a specific course is one that takes months of study. Deciding in a matter of days to vary the route is not something that happens every day, but Curiosity has always been a pioneering project. Since it's studying the multi-layered surfaces of the planet, they felt the opportunity to look at this kind of filled valley was too good to pass up.
After getting measurements and images of the sediments in the valley, the rover was sent back on it's way up Mount Sharp enroute to Logan Pass. Watch the video below to hear how the team plans the route for Curiosity.
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