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This great answer suggests the limiting high altitude to which the Curiosity rover on Mars could drive would be the top of Mt. Sharp (Aeolis Mons) - in the center of Gale crater.

I'm wondering, is there enough imaging data from satellite images from Mars orbit to say something about the terrain and grades (slopes) that Curiosity would encounter if it tried to drive to the top? If there are boulder fields or sloping sand, the trip might actually be very unlikely for example.

Also, are there any problems operating Curiosity at higher altitude? Is it colder up there, or are there other weather issues that might affect it? Can it run in a complete vacuum or are there some localized heating issues that do take advantage of the low pressure atmosphere so far below "sea level" on Mars?

If the drive took 10 years, would the RTG still have enough oomph to keep it moving up safely and communicating? Do comms with Earth rely on any satellite who's lifetime is limited? Could it even make it to the top in 10 years, or would it take much longer? Anything else?


below: "This image taken by NASA's Curiosity shows what lies ahead for the rover -- its main science target, Mount Sharp. The rover's shadow can be seen in the foreground, and the dark bands beyond are dunes. Rising up in the distance is the highest peak Mount Sharp at a height of about 3.4 miles, taller than Mt. Whitney in California. The Curiosity team hopes to drive the rover to the mountain to investigate its lower layers, which scientists think hold clues to past environmental change. This image was captured by the rover's front left Hazard-Avoidance camera at full resolution shortly after it landed. It has been linearized to remove the distorted appearance that results from its fisheye lens." From here, original description at NASA.

enter image description here

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    $\begingroup$ I doubt the wheels would take it. Wear and tear on the wheels is already a big concern. Maybe I can find some more up-to-date resources on that. $\endgroup$ – Polygnome Sep 2 '17 at 19:55
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    $\begingroup$ We may never know, since I doubt they would ever try. There would need to be a compelling science objective to do that, which I've not heard of. $\endgroup$ – Mark Adler Sep 5 '17 at 3:58
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    $\begingroup$ I don't like destroying other people's work (so I won't edit) but IMO the whole section below the line is irrelevant to the question. $\endgroup$ – Jan Doggen Sep 5 '17 at 7:38
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    $\begingroup$ @JanDoggen it is a photograph of the mountain in question - the thing that the one must consider the rover driving to the top of in order to answer the question. How is a ground-level; rover-eye-point-of-view of the mountain not central to the question about the rover driving up this mountain? The caption comes with the image, leaving the caption out would just prompt requests for an explanation of the image. $\endgroup$ – uhoh Sep 5 '17 at 7:44
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    $\begingroup$ @Conelisinspace This is from last year: spaceflightnow.com/2017/03/28/… $\endgroup$ – Polygnome Mar 31 '18 at 13:01
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Universe Today has a nice map showing (in green) which parts of Mount Sharp are traversable for Curiosity:

most of Mount Sharp can be traversed by the rover

(click for high-res version)

Summary: No, Curiosity cannot climb to the summit of Mt. Sharp, this map indicates the top of the mountain is not traversable.

Details and answers to subquestions

Curiosity was designed to be able to climb steep inclines.

The rover is designed to withstand a tilt of 45 degrees in any direction without overturning. However, the rover is programmed through its "fault protection limits" in its hazard avoidance software to avoid exceeding tilts of 30 degrees during its traverses.

Cooling the RTG won't be an issue:

The newest RTG, called a Multi-Mission Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator (MMRTG), has been designed to operate on Mars and in the vacuum of space.

The RTG was designed to power the rover for at least 14 years.

The lower air pressure might affect lubrication or other items, but remember the rover had to fly to Mars, spending 6 months in the vacuum of space. The RTG was already running during that time.

Trajectory planning starts with satellite imagery (from e.g. MRO), with a resolution of up to 90 cm/pixel. While this is pretty good, it can hide boulders that are large enough to block Curiosity's path, so the second step is using Curiosity's own cameras to survey the road ahead.

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  • $\begingroup$ Wow, that's quite an interesting illustration, especially when viewed full size. $\endgroup$ – uhoh Sep 6 '17 at 14:26
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Some wheel damage experts also seem less than optimistic

"Wheel lifetime estimates show that with careful path planning the wheels will be operational for an additional ten kilometers or more, allowing the rover to reach key strata exposed on the slopes of Mount Sharp."

This information further supports @Hobbes' answer.

In 2017, Curiosity was (and still is) way more than 10 km away from the peak of Mt. Sharp. It looks more like 40 or 50 km. That plus the vertical climb makes it unlikely that the wheels would hold out. (Then again, what's a few broken wheels? Mars rover’s broken wheel is beyond repair)

The abstract of the 2017 paper Relating geologic units and mobility system kinematics contributing to Curiosity wheel damage at Gale Crater, Mars says:

Curiosity landed on plains to the north of Mount Sharp in August 2012. By June 2016 the rover had traversed 12.9 km to the southwest, encountering extensive strata that were deposited in a fluvial-deltaic-lacustrine system. Initial drives across sharp sandstone outcrops initiated an unacceptably high rate of punctures and cracks in the thin aluminum wheel skin structures. Initial damage was found to be related to the drive control mode of the six wheel drive actuators and the kinematics of the rocker-bogie suspension. Wheels leading a suspension pivot were forced onto sharp, immobile surfaces by the other wheels as they maintained their commanded angular velocities. Wheel damage mechanisms such as geometry-induced stress concentration cracking and low-cycle fatigue were then exacerbated. A geomorphic map was generated to assist in planning traverses that would minimize further wheel damage. A steady increase in punctures and cracks between landing and June 2016 was due in part because of drives across the sharp sandstone outcrops that could not be avoided. Wheel lifetime estimates show that with careful path planning the wheels will be operational for an additional ten kilometers or more, allowing the rover to reach key strata exposed on the slopes of Mount Sharp.

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  • $\begingroup$ So is this answering with a yes or a no? I can't see an actual answer here $\endgroup$ – Rory Alsop Feb 1 at 3:39
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    $\begingroup$ @RoryAlsop there isn't an actual answer here either, I'm just maintaining parity (humor) Seriously though, these are predictions so they can't be definite yes' or no's. That answer tends more towards yes, and mine tends more towards no, but neither is certain. $\endgroup$ – uhoh Feb 1 at 3:48
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    $\begingroup$ There was an actual answer there, I just hadn't made it explicit enough, it seems. $\endgroup$ – Hobbes Feb 1 at 7:52
  • $\begingroup$ @Hobbes thanks for the clarification, I'd thought it went the other way, I've re-accepted and added a sentence here. $\endgroup$ – uhoh Feb 1 at 8:05

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