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Curiosity chooses its own path

Elizabeth Howell, News Writer
Sep 5, 2013, 7:00 UTC

Sen—NASA's Mars rover Curiosity recently activated its autonomous navigation system, which allows the powerful NASA rover to steer its own course around rocks and other hazards on the Red Planet.

Curiosity is currently on the road to Mount Sharp (Aeolis Mons). It is a major landmark a few kilometres away that mission planners have been eagerly eyeing since the rover landed on Mars last August.

The new capability, activated last week, allows Curiosity to look at images it takes and then determine which path is safest. With a large time delay between Curiosity's movements and the human controllers on Earth, this allows the rover to move quicker than what its drivers can plot.

"Curiosity takes several sets of stereo pairs of images, and the rover's computer processes that information to map any geometric hazard or rough terrain," stated Mark Maimone, rover mobility engineer and rover driver at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

"The rover considers all the paths it could take to get to the designated endpoint for the drive and chooses the best one." 

Mars Curiosity Sol 376

Part of a mosaic of images showing Mars Curiosity's position on its 376th Martian day, or sol, of the mission, on Aug. 27, 2013. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The first drive on August 27 -- the mission's 376th sol, or Martian day -- had 10 metres of autonomous navigation, forming about a quarter of the 43-metre distance the rover covered that sol.

The rover is now about seven kilometres from Mount Sharp. It is following what NASA calls a "rapid transit route" -- a path that is based on images from the orbiting Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter's High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera. Curiosity could vary the path as it gets an up-close look, however.

The rover will make a few stops along the way to perform science experiments, with the next waypoint just a few hundred metres away. There is a possible crop of exposed bedrock that could yield some interesting results, NASA said.

"Each waypoint represents an opportunity for Curiosity to pause during its long journey to Mount Sharp and study features of local interest," stated John Grotzinger, a Curiosity project scientist at the California Institute of Technology.

"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 is in the middle of a two-year prime mission to determine if Mars conditions, either now or in the past, are or were suitable for life. Last year, the rover came across evidence of an ancient hip-deep streambed. It has also found evidence of rocks that were formed in water.

The rover has also performed investigations into the Red Planet's thinning atmosphere over the eons, with isotope measurements hinting the atmosphere probably bled from the top of the planet.