Tue, Nov 13, 2018 - Page 7 News List

How to drive a robot on the Red Planet

AFP, GREENBELT, Maryland

About 126 million kilometers from Earth, alone on the immense and frigid Red Planet, a robot the size of a small 4x4 wakes up just after sunrise. Just as it has every day for the past six years, it awaits its instructions.

About 9:30am Mars time, a message arrives from California, where it was sent 15 minutes earlier:

“Drive forward 10m, turn to an azimuth of 45°, now turn on your autonomous capabilities and drive.”

The Curiosity rover executes the commands, moving slowly to its designated position, at a maximum speed of 35m to 110m per hour.

Its batteries and other configurations limit its daily drive span to about 100m. The most Curiosity has rolled in a day on Mars is 220m.

Once it arrives, its 17 cameras take shots of its environs.

Its laser zaps rocks. Other tools on board drill into a particularly interesting rock to study small samples.

About 5pm Martian time, it would wait for one of NASA’s three satellites orbiting the planet to pass overhead.

Curiosity would then send several hundred megabytes of scientific data via large ground antennae to its human masters on Earth.

On the ground floor of Building 34 at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, scientists pore over Curiosity’s data every day at 1pm, in a large, windowless room full of scientific instruments and computers.

The scientists are looking for any indication of life on Mars.

Inside Curiosity lies a “marvel of miniaturization,” said Charles Malespin, the deputy principal investigator for Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM), a chemist’s lab the size of a microwave oven.

On the other side of the US, at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, about two dozen men and women make up the team that drives Curiosity.

“My favorite part of the day [is when] I get to sit down and start looking at the imagery from Mars and understand where the rover currently is,” said Frank Hartman, who has driven both Curiosity and another, older rover, Opportunity. “And my feeling is that sometimes I’m probably the first person on Earth looking at some of these pictures.”

The Mars drivers’ main job is to write the sequence of commands for the rover to follow the next sol, or “day” on Mars, which lasts 24 hours and nearly 40 minutes. There is no joystick, and no real-time communication with the robotic vehicle.

“We haven’t been to any of these places before,” Hartman said. “And so we always have to be aware of the fact that we know so little about what we’re encountering.”

Curiosity, which landed in 2012, has so far traveled just more than 19.75km. It must wait another year before reaching its goal, Mount Sharp.

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