It seems almost every day, NASA continues to perfect its Martian-based rover, Curiosity. The robotic vehicle has been traversing the Red planet for over a year now, checking the planet’s climate, geology and habitability using its vast array of technical gizmos and sensors. NASA have recently announced Curiosity’s ability to control its own destiny, moving autonomously through Mars’ rocky terrain.
The primary issue with these Martian rovers seems to revolve around their constant requirement for manual input, using a highly skilled team at NASA control to ensure their continued safety.
The team have enabled the rover to use autonomous navigation for the very first time, enabling the device to traverse the Martian surface without the assistance of operatives on the ground. Essentially, Curiosity is in the driver’s seat and is capable of deciding whether a particular route is safe enough to drive along.
According to a statement released on NASA’s website, this latest ability will ensure Curiosity’s safe transit to Mount Sharp, a 3-mile-high mass, the location of which is where much research is planned; it is hoped that such a mission could unearth the mysteries of environmental change on Mars.
The vehicle has undergone slight software changes to keep it in line with similar efforts from the Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity. However, Curiosity is a bigger more intricate design, relative to the other rover, which is also currently active on Mars. Simply put, Curiosity can use a series of images of the planet’s surface to analyze the uneven terrain and critically evaluate a safe path to drive along; the technique is called autonomous navigation, or autonav. The sophisticated onboard computers make this an easier task using Curiosity, as it is able to process much more stereo data.
On Aug. 27, in an exciting display of independence, Curiosity successfully piloted its own destiny through control of this newly instated autonav technology. Before the drive, NASA’s ground team had not assessed the terrain to confirm its safety. This comes in the wake of preliminary tests that were conducted by NASA, a week prior, in an area of Mars that had been identified as safe.
Although these are highly impressive developments, there’s still a long way to go for the team, as ground operatives continue to regulate much of Curiosity’s movements and activities. For instance, when performing Tuesday’s drive, Curiosity only drove an autonomous distance of 33 feet out of a total driving distance of 141 feet. During this period, Curiosity drove across an area of unmapped ground, where a depression occluded certain geometric aspects of the terrain.
One of the key drivers, working from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, explained the groundbreaking nature of Curiosity’s new autonav feature, which was wielded to overcome the dangers of these unmapped regions:
“We could see the area before the dip, and we told the rover where to drive on that part. We could see the ground on the other side, where we designated a point for the rover to end the drive, but Curiosity figured out for herself how to drive the uncharted part in between.”
Curiosity still has some distance to maneuver yet, before reaching Mount Sharp. Thus far, the robot has been slugging on for two months and still has over four miles to go, until it reaches its ultimate destination.
The nuclear-powered rover is due to pass along a “rapid transit route,” where additional stops are planned to allow scientific experiments to be conducted. Harnessing the power of NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, a spacecraft used to explore the surface of Mars with the facility of cameras, spectrometers and radars, the space team have identified an exposed bedrock.
Curiosity Project Scientist John Grotzinger discussed the importance of making these stops and investigating areas of “local interest.” According to Grotzinger, data from the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) have even suggested the area to be a potential drill site:
“These features are geologically interesting, based on HiRISE images, and they lie very close to the path that provides the most expeditious route to the base of Mount Sharp. We’ll study each for several sols, perhaps selecting one for drilling if it looks sufficiently interesting.”
Curiosity originally set tracks in the Gale crater, where it first landed in 2012, and then made its painstakingly slow journey to Glenelg, subsequently discovering an area that could have been amenable to formation of microbial life. Following this, at the latest Goldschmidt conference, Steven Benner makes the assertion that life on Earth originated from Mars, after hitching a ride on a meteorite. The finding of these ancient “wet” environments, alongside recent investigations of boron-rich meteorites, could suggest that we are all of Martian descent.
It’s hoped that our gaps in knowledge could be filled in by some of Curiosity’s future endeavors, during NASA’s investigation of the evolution of Mars’ environmental changes. Although it may take a while before Curiosity is given free rein to travel entire days at a time, it looks like the rover is set to control its own destiny very soon.
By: James Fenner