Curiosity Rover Drives Backward on Mars to Reduce Wheel Wear and Tear

Mars Rover Curiosity's First Long Backward Drive
NASA's Curiosity Mars rover caught its own shadow in this image taken just after completing a backward drive of 329 feet (100.3 meters) on the 547th Martian day, or sol, of the rover's work on Mars (Feb. 18, 2014). (Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

NASA's Mars rover Curiosity has put it in reverse, completing its first-ever long backward drive.

The 1-ton Curiosity rover covered 329 feet (100 meters) in reverse on Tuesday (Feb. 18). The maneuver — carried out over relatively smooth and benign ground — was designed to test out a strategy for reducing wear on the robot's six metal wheels, which have accumulated dings and holes at an increasing rate over the last few months, NASA officials said.

"We wanted to have backwards driving in our validated toolkit because there will be parts of our route that will be more challenging," Curiosity project manager Jim Erickson, of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., said in a statement. [Curiosity Passes 5K Mark, Seeks Gentler Terrain (Video)]

This look back at a dune that NASA's Curiosity Mars rover drove across was taken by the rover's Mast Camera (Mastcam) during the 538th Martian day, or sol, of Curiosity's work on Mars (Feb. 9, 2004). (Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS)

Curiosity is currently embarked on a long trek to the base of Mount Sharp, which rises 3.4 miles (5.5 kilometers) into the Martian sky. The rover recently crossed a sand dune to enter a region called Moonlight Valley, which photos taken from orbit suggested would give Curiosity's wheels a bit of a break.

That landscape assessment appears to be on the money, team members said.

"After we got over the dune, we began driving in terrain that looks like what we expected based on the orbital data," Erickson said. "There are fewer sharp rocks, many of them are loose, and in most places there's a little bit of sand cushioning the vehicle."

Curiosity is expected to arrive at the base of Mount Sharp around June or so. Once there, it will climb up through the mountain's lower reaches, which contain a history of Mars' changing environmental conditions over the eons.

But the rover will stop to do some science work along the way to Mount Sharp. The mission team plans to study — and possibly drill into — rocks at a site they've dubbed Kimberley, which lies about 0.67 miles (1.1 km) ahead on the route.

This map shows the route driven and route planned for NASA's Curiosity Mars rover from before reaching "Dingo Gap" -- in upper right -- to the mission's next science waypoint, "Kimberley" (formerly referred to as "KMS-9") -- in lower left. (Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona)

Curiosity's handlers will further refine the rover's path while it's conducting science work at Kimberley, using orbital imagery to pick the best way forward.

"We have changed our focus to look at the big picture for getting to the slopes of Mount Sharp, assessing different potential routes and different entry points to the destination area," Erickson said. "No route will be perfect; we need to figure out the best of the imperfect ones."

Curiosity landed in August 2012 to determine if the Red Planet has ever been capable of supporting microbial life. Mission scientists have already answered this question in the affirmative, announcing last year that an area near the rover's landing site called Yellowknife Bay was indeed habitable billions of years ago.

Curiosity has now put a total of 3.24 miles (5.21 km) on its odometer since touching down. Its older, smaller cousin Opportunity, by comparison, has driven 24.07 miles (38.74 km) during its 10 years on Mars.

Opportunity holds the American distance record for off-planet driving. The overall mark was set by the Soviet Union's Lunokhod 2 rover, which travelled 26 miles (42 km) on the moon in 1973.

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Mike Wall
Senior Space Writer

Michael Wall is a Senior Space Writer with and joined the team in 2010. He primarily covers exoplanets, spaceflight and military space, but has been known to dabble in the space art beat. His book about the search for alien life, "Out There," was published on Nov. 13, 2018. Before becoming a science writer, Michael worked as a herpetologist and wildlife biologist. He has a Ph.D. in evolutionary biology from the University of Sydney, Australia, a bachelor's degree from the University of Arizona, and a graduate certificate in science writing from the University of California, Santa Cruz. To find out what his latest project is, you can follow Michael on Twitter.