Curiosity may be sitting idle during the solar conjunction (more on that below), but there’s fresh Mars-focused news.  Researchers have suggested  the rover could use a friend — a scuttling lizard robot.

Engineers at the Georgia Institute of Technology reportedly came up with a robot whose appendages were inspired by lizards (as opposed to, say, the Hoth walkers from “Empire Strikes Back,” which were obviously inspired by elephants).  The legs of the bot are designed to scamper over — not wade through — sand.

Don’t laugh.  You’ll recall the fate of the Spirit rover on Mars– stuck in sand.  Spirit, which landed on Mars in 2004, became ensnared in soft sand in 2009. NASA tried to wiggle it free for months, but in 2010 the rover was declared officially entombed.

The rotating legs of the new robot work a bit like backward scoops, as Geekosystem reports.  The design would allow the robot to easily move over the surface of sandy alien planets.  The test robot is 5 inches long and weighs a third of a pound. But as NBC News’ John Roach opines, this line of research could eventually lead to “giant robotic lizards on missions to Mars.”

Curiosity does not have six legs. She has six wheels, and they were designed with sand and rocks in mind.  As NASA says, the “design allows the rover to go over obstacles (such as rocks) or through holes that are more than a wheel diameter (50 centimeters or about 20 inches) in size. Each wheel also has cleats, providing grip for climbing in soft sand and scrambling over rocks.”

None of Curiosity’s six wheels, however, is now in action.  The rover is sleeping out the solar conjunction — that’s when the sun is between Earth and Mars, presenting possible communications problems between Curiosity and her handlers.  A small team at NASA will continue to keep an eye out on the rover each day (or Martian “sol,” as scientists say ).

“A small engineering team will be active every sol during conjunction,” deputy project scientist Ashwin Vasavada told the Los Angeles Times, “just in case there’s anything to deal with.”

But members of the team who have been busy since the August landing of Curiosity on Mars are taking the time for vacations or to catch up on paperwork.

“This is certainly the longest period with no planned rover activities,” Vasavada said. “The science team is completely free of operations roles.”  He said many on the team, himself included, would be working on “our first set of scientific papers” for the mission.  There will also be some planning sessions for the eventual drive of the rover to Mt. Sharp.

“I have mixed feelings,” he added.  The science team is anxious to continue its work and with slowdowns from recent computer glitches he said it would be “painful to be inactive for another few weeks.”

“But on the other hand,” Vasavada said, “operating this rover is like a hamster wheel that never stops. Being free of that daily stress for a little while will be a guilty pleasure.”


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