Behold the Dingo Gap, an area that NASA scientists are intent on getting Curiosity to explore. But to get there, the Mars rover will have to climb over a 3-foot (1 meter) sand dune. If done incorrectly, it could mark the end of Curiosity's incredible journey.
There are two primary reasons for wanting to get Curiosity over this particular dune and into the small valley. First, getting it into the Dingo Gap — an area that runs between two escarpments — will allow Curiosity to continue its mission, that of exploring and assessing potentially data-rich regions for signs of habitability and changes to the planet's environmental conditions. Second, the route features fewer of the sharp rocks that have been making significant dents in Curiosity's aluminium wheels. Check out the damage done to date:
The incline of the dune shouldn't pose a problem for Curiosity. The concern is whether its 20-inch (50 cm) diameter wheels could get stuck in a sand trap. There's also the potential for any rocks hidden inside the dune to damage or trap the rover.
Mission planners have a right to be worried. Its Spirit rover was lost in a sand trap in 2009, and in 2005, the Opportunity rover became stuck for several weeks in a deep dirt pile later dubbed "Purgatory Dune."
Curiosity is currently testing the sand's consistency with its wheels. A final decision on whether to pass through this valley will come after an evaluation of a short drive planned later this week toward the top of the dune that lies across Dingo Gap.