The Curiosity Rover is driving in reverse to protect its dented wheels

Curiosity's aluminum wheels have taken a beating since starting its Martian mission back in August 2012. Now, in an effort to preserve them, NASA instructed the rover to drive nearly 330 feet (100 meters) in reverse — it's longest advance in three months.

NASA's Curiosity team is surprised at how quickly the wheels are deteriorating, the consequence of having the rover trundle across sharp, rocky terrain. But its ability to drive so capably in reverse is no accident; the technique was tested on Earth for these sorts of contingencies.

"We wanted to have backwards driving in our validated toolkit because there will be parts of our route that will be more challenging," said Curiosity Project Manager Jim Erickson of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in a statement.

The Curiosity Rover is driving in reverse to protect its dented wheels

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

The latest stretch run, which followed Curiosity's recent climb over a 3-foot-tall (1-meter) sand dune, was done over relatively smooth ground. And in fact, one of the reasons why NASA wanted to get Curiosity into the Dingo Gap was because of the benign terrain.

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

From here, the rover will be sent to a science waypoint and then to its long-term goal of investigating the lower slopes of Mount Sharp, water-related minerals have been detected from orbit.