August 29, 2012

Curiosity Puts Morse Code In Sand As It Makes Its First Mission Drive

Lee Rannals for redOrbit.com - Your Universe Online

Curiosity's trek on top the Martian surface has officially commenced, as the rover took off on Tuesday towards a destination about a quarter mile away.

NASA said the rover drove eastward about 52 feet on Tuesday, concluding its third drive when considering the two test drives it has already taken.

"This drive really begins our journey toward the first major driving destination, Glenelg, and it's nice to see some Martian soil on our wheels," mission manager Arthur Amador of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, said in a statement. "The drive went beautifully, just as our rover planners designed it."

The location Curiosity is heading to is a spot where three types of terrain intersect, and is the likely place to find a first rock target for drilling and analysis.

"We are on our way, though Glenelg is still many weeks away," Curiosity Project Scientist John Grotzinger of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, said in the release "We plan to stop for just a day at the location we just reached, but in the next week or so we will make a longer stop."

Curiosity will begin snapping photos with its Mast Camera (Mastcam) from its new location on Tuesday. It will be part of a series of images the rover will be taking along its quarter mile journey towards Glenelg.

As Curiosity took its test stroll last Wednesday, and shot pictures of its accomplishment, the images held more than just proof of the rover's ability to roam around on another planet's surface.

If you are able to speak the nearly ancient language of Morse code, then you may find a hidden message within Curiosity's track prints on Mars.

For those of you who aren't as well cultured when it comes to decoding dots and lines, or don't want to do the work, NASA's Curiosity wheel prints spell out the abbreviation for the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, where the rover was designed and built.

"The purpose of the pattern is to create features in the terrain that can be used to visually measure the precise distance between drives," Matt Heverly, the lead rover driver for Curiosity at JPL, said in a statement.

This "visual odometry" tool allows the rover to use images of landscape features to determine if it has traveled as far as predicted, or if its wheels have slipped.

NASA said when the rover drives on high slopes, or across loose soil, it will routinely stop to check its progress.

By measuring its distance relative to dozens of prominent features like pebbles or shadows on rocks, the rover can check how much its wheels may have slipped. If Curiosity hasn't slipped too much, it can then re-plan the next leg of its drive.

"Visual odometry will enable Curiosity to drive more accurately even in high-slip terrains, aiding its science mission by reaching interesting targets in fewer sols, running slip checks to stop before getting too stuck, and enabling precise driving," rover driver Mark Maimone, who led the development of the rover's autonomous driving software, said in a press release.

NASA said the Morse code on its six wheels will be handy when the terrain is barren. The rover will not be able to read the symbols in the tracks directly, but it will note the pattern is a high-contrast feature.

"Imagine standing in front of a picket fence, and then closing your eyes and shifting to the side. When you open your eyes, you wouldn't be able to tell how many pickets you passed. If you had one picket that was a different shape though, you could always use that picket as your reference," Heverly said in the press release. "With Curiosity, it's a similar problem in featureless terrain like sand dunes. The hole pattern in the wheels gives us one 'big picket' to look at."