Curiosity Rover Stand-in Takes Desert Test Drive

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NASA’s newest Mars rover will not touch down on the red planet until August, but scientists are already testing out the vehicle’s desert driving skills.

Researchers took a test version of NASA’s Curiosity rover out to Dumont Dunes in California’s Mojave Desert the week of May 7 to learn more about how to operate Curiosity after it touches down at Mars’ Gale Crater on the night of Aug. 5.

The test rover is called “Scarecrow” because like the character in “The Wizard of Oz” it doesn’t have an onboard computer “brain” like Curiosity does.

The Scarecrow rover does have a full-scale version of Curiosity’s mobility system, NASA officials said. But aside from that, the rover is stripped down so that it weighs roughly 340 kilograms — about as much as Curiosity will weigh in the lesser gravity of Mars. On Earth, Curiosity tips the scales at 900 kilograms.

For the desert test drive, scientists sent Scarecrow crawling across the dunes to better prepare for Curiosity’s journey, which will likely feature some dune driving in and around Gale Crater.

Curiosity is the centerpiece of NASA’s $2.5 billion Mars Science Laboratory mission. The rover’s main goal is to determine if the Gale Crater area is, or ever was, capable of supporting microbial life.

Curiosity has 10 different science instruments to help it address this question, including a rock-zapping laser and gear designed to detect organic molecules. The rover will study the many layers of Mount Sharp, the mysterious 5-kilometer-high mountain rising from the center of Gale Crater.

Curiosity will be NASA’s fourth, and largest, rover to land on Mars.