News From Space: More Happening on Mars!

marsIt seems like weeks since the Red Planet has been featured in the news. But that’s to be expected when the two biggest news makers – the Opportunity and Curiosity rovers – are either performing a long drive or climbing a tall mountain. Not much in the way of updates are expected, unless something goes wrong. Luckily, these rovers always find ways to surprise us.

After over a year on Mars, Curiosity has accomplished a long list of firsts. This latest occurred last week, when NASA announced that Curiosity picked up the pace of its long trek to Mount Sharp by completing its first two-day autonomous drive, in which the rover did one leg of an autonomous drive on Sunday, then completed it on Monday.

mars_scapePreviously, Curiosity’s autonomous drives were only executed after finishing a drive planned by mission control on Earth using images supplied by Curiosity. These images would then be uploaded its on board computer, and the rover would compare them with images taken by its navigation camera to plot a safe path. The drive completed Monday is the first where the rover ended an autonomous drive on one day, then continued it the next day by itself.

This is all thanks to the incorporation of the new autonomous navigation (or autonav) software, which NASA finished incorporating and debuted at the end of August. According to NASA, this new system not only allows the rover to drive itself for longer stretches of time, it also allows mission control to plan activities for several days, which could be implemented on Fridays and before holidays so the rover can continue to work while the staff are away.

curiosity_hirise_tracksAccording to NASA, on Sunday, the new software allowed Curiosity to drive about 55 m (180 ft) along a path planned by mission control, then switched to autonomous mode and traveled another 38m (125 ft) with the rover selecting waypoints and the safest path. It then stored navigation variables in its non-volatile memory, then reloaded them on Monday to drive another 32 m (105 ft).

In all, Curiosity covered about 125 meters (410 ft) in total. This brought it within about 80 m (262 ft) from “Cooperstown,” a rocky outcrop where the rover will be conducting another series of scientific examinations. These will be the first time that Curiosity has had the opportunity to use its arm-mounted instruments since September 22.

mountsharp_galecraterAccording to Kevin Lewis of Princeton University, who spoke about the upcoming studies in “Cooperstown”:

What interests us about this site is an intriguing outcrop of layered material visible in the orbital images. We want to see how the local layered outcrop at Cooperstown may help us relate the geology of Yellowknife Bay [on Mars] to the geology of Mount Sharp.

This stop will be only brief, as the rover team are anxious to get Curiosity back on its way to Mount Sharp. Once there, it will begin digging, drilling and generally seeking out the vast caches of minerals that the mountain is expected to have, ones which could potentially support a habitable environment. Exciting times ahead!


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