Curiosity rover stuck at base of Mt. Sharp due to technical issues

Technical issues experienced by Curiosity while scaling Mount Sharp have prevented the Mars rover from moving its robotic arm or continuing its journey, limiting it to monitoring the planet’s weather and capturing images over the past two weeks, NASA revealed on Tuesday.

According to NPR and the Associated Press, the issue involves a motor in the part of the rover’s extendable arm used to drill into Martian rock and was first experienced when Curiosity began to climb the gently sloping central peak of Gale Crater, the region where it landed in 2012.

Currently, the drill stops functioning once the tip is just a few inches off the ground, the agency explained. Engineers are currently attempting to find the cause, and thus far they have eliminated both electrical and software problems, leading to speculation that the motor is at fault.

Specifically, as Ashwin Vasavada, a project scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, told NPR, the issue is believed to be linked to a brake in the motor. Until they are able to identify and correct the issue however, they intend to keep Curiosity at its current position, as moving it “could affect our ability to understand the problem,” he noted.

mt sharp rock image

The rover snapped this image of rocks at the base of Mars’ Mount Sharp on November 10. (Credit: NASA/JPL/Caltech)

Rover not expected to move until its arm can fold back into place

Vasavada and his colleagues have been able to get the drill working again a couple of times, but only for a while before it stalls again. The goal is to have the seven-foot-long arm fold back into place without issue so that the rover does not need to travel with the appendage extended.

Moving the rover without having its arm tucked into place would be “kind of like when you go over a speed bump and then everybody shakes,” Vasavada told NPR. For the time being, NASA is limited to using the rover’s other instruments while engineers work to correct the problem.

Since its arrival on Mars, Curiosity has traveled 9.33 miles (15.01 kilometers) and climbed more than 540 feet (165 meters) in elevation since departing the Murray Buttes, a group of mesas and buttes located within Gale Crater, according to JPL. Scientists having the rover analyze rocks at Mount Sharp to get a look at the history and the evolution of the Red Planet’s geology.

Prior to its current technical issues, the six-wheeled rover discovered evidence that Mount Sharp was once home to water, as it was home to chemicals suggesting that this area was once home to conditions favorable for the existence of microbial life. Until the issue with the drill arm is fixed, however, it will remain in place and continue taking pictures of its surroundings, NASA said.


Image credit: NASA/JPL/Caltech