NASA Hands Autonomous Navigation Reins Over To Curiosity For Trip To Mount Sharp
August 28, 2013

NASA Hands Autonomous Navigation Reins Over To Curiosity For Trip To Mount Sharp

Lee Rannals for - Your Universe Online

NASA's Curiosity rover already has a year under its belt of driving on the surface of the Red Planet, but the Martian explorer is just now using its autonomous navigation for the first time.

The latest addition to the rover gives Curiosity the capability to decide for itself how to drive safely across Mars. Autonomous navigation will help the rover cover the remaining ground en route to Mount Sharp, where NASA plans to investigate geological layers in order to understand a bit more about the history of Mars.

Curiosity will be able to use the software to analyze images taken during a drive to calculate a safe driving path. This software enables the rover to evaluate its path ahead of what the scientists at NASA are able to do. For example, NASA said the rover used its autonomous navigation on Tuesday to drive on ground that could not be confirmed safe before the start of the drive.

"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," said Mark Maimone, rover mobility engineer and rover driver at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif. "The rover considers all the paths it could take to get to the designated endpoint for the drive and chooses the best one."

The rover drove about 33 feet autonomously on Tuesday, bringing the daily driving mileage to about 141 feet. Curiosity plotted part of the drive itself, but kept it within an area operators had identified as safe.

"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," said JPL's John Wright, a Curiosity rover driver.

The latest drive brings the rover's full tally since leaving Glenelg to 0.86 miles (4,540 feet). Curiosity still has about 4.46 miles (23,548 feet) to go before reaching Mount Sharp, although NASA says this driving route could be longer or shorter.

NASA has picked out a few waypoints along the path to Mount Sharp where Curiosity may pause for a few days in order to perform a little science. The rover has nearly a third mile left until it reaches the first of these waypoints, which is located within bedrock.

"Each waypoint represents an opportunity for Curiosity to pause during its long journey to Mount Sharp and study features of local interest," said Curiosity Project Scientist John Grotzinger of Caltech. "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's last science target, Glenelg, is where the rover found evidence that Mars used to host conditions favorable for microbial life. The rover moved from this area back in July and is heading towards one of the mission's main target objectives.

Mount Sharp is in the middle of Gale Crater, and scientists believe its exposed layers will offer up even more evidence about the history of the Red Planet.