I'm still learning new things about the capabilities of our plucky robot science lab, Curiosity, now exploring Gale Crater on Mars. This new JPL video describes an autonomous navigation capability that I did not previously note in my mission research, or maybe I overlooked it.
I guess I shouldn't be surprised, given that some of today's news cycle was burned with stories about the autonomous capabilities of BMW's and Lexus's. Anyway, this sixty second spot from NASA about rover navigation is succinctly engaging, informative, entertaining and accessible.
I've placed a transcript of the video for the video impaired, along with one last thought out in the tall grass.
For all of my Mars diaries and all things Mars on Daily Kos go to Kossacks on Mars
How do rovers drive on Mars?One last thought: For the cost of building, arming, crewing, maintaining, upgrading and operating a single Ohio Class Trident ICBM submarine, we could have a half dozen Curiosity labs roving Mars. If humans are ever to make use of our nearest habitable planetary neighbor, we can't learn to much too soon about the place.
First of all, there's no joystick for driving a Mars rover. Before a rover hits the road, engineers send computer commands overnight, telling it where to go the next day. Depending on how tricky the terrain is, rover drivers have two options. They can send a string of specific commands like “drive forward five meters and turn right 90 degrees”. The rover turns its wheels enough times to add up to five meters and then turns in place.
Or, if it looks safe, they can let the rover think on its own. They write commands like “See that rock over there? Find your way there safely.” Then using two cameras like human eyes, the rover gets a 3-D view of hazards like large rocks and step slopes. After mapping the danger zones, it plots the safest route to avoid them.
Either way, did the rover complete its drive as planned? Engineers double check when the rover sends back a post card of its new spot on Mars.
The obvious merits of the matters justify a peace dividend for many other worthy but starved federal projects and programs. At less than $3 billion over 9 years, NASA's entire MSL program is tangibly expanding the boundaries of human knowledge. Compare those real benefits with the benefit of a trident missile submarine, which, in its entirety, consists of holding no one in particular hostage to nuclear annihilation. Compare that "benefit" to the kind of good this sort of money can do rebuilding infrastructure, improving transportation, strengthening public education, etc.
The greatest discoveries from the MSL mission lie ahead, but every bit of data collected, Sol by Sol, strengthens and advances humanity's body of knowledge about our little corner of the universe; threats of violence, on any scale, detract from our humanity, adding nothing but fear, dread and pointlessness.