“We built a rover, so unless the rover roves, we really haven’t accomplished anything,” said Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) project manager Pete Theisinger, “It’s a big moment, a very big moment.”
Theisinger was addressing a press briefing at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, Calif., on Aug. 22 to update the world on the progress of Curiosity just as the rover made its first test drive.
His statement may have sounded a little dramatic to many; after all, Curiosity had traversed interplanetary space and, on the night of Aug. 5, survived the fiery hell of atmospheric entry, steered its way through the turbulent Mars atmosphere, slammed on the breaks with a parachute, only to drop in free-fall and then finished off the whole journey to the Red Planet with a “crazy” rocket-powered sky crane maneuver… anything after that drama would have been a bonus, right?
But what if something unforeseen had happened to the wheels during landing? Or if the all-important actuators had failed? Or some damaged internal component had caused a catastrophic failure in Curiosity’s ability to move? In short, just because everything worked near-perfectly until Aug. 22, one of the biggest tests remained: Could the rover rove?
Once again, Curiosity thrilled us when it beamed back photos of wheel marks in the Martian regolith. For JPL’s rover drivers, that was the pay dirt; that was the confirmation they’d been waiting for. Curiosity had grown up and officially become a rover, happily rolling over the rock-littered plain of Aeolis Palus.
On Thursday (Sept. 6), a little over 2 weeks after its first test drive, Curiosity has passed its “drivers test” with flying colors and it appears to be a natural born Mars rover, dominating the Martian landscape around its landing site — named “Bradbury Landing” after famed science fiction author Ray Bradbury who died earlier this year.
At time of writing, the nuclear-powered robot had traveled a distance of 358 feet (109 meters) — a little longer the length of a football field. And it is being watched.
Orbiting high above Mars’ surface is NASA’s ever-watchful Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO). Using its sophisticated High-Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera, on Thursday it was also announced that Curiosity had joined a very exclusive club: robots that have left their tread marks on Mars. In the HiRISE observation above, Curiosity has been imaged plus its very obvious wheel tracks (a possible shadow of the rover’s mast can also be made out).
Only two rovers’ tracks had been imaged from space before Curiosity: Mars Exploration Rovers (MER) Spirit and Opportunity.
Sadly, Spirit stopped making tracks in the Mars dirt in April 2009 when it became stuck in a sand trap known as “Troy” at Gusev Crater. Spirit’s roving capabilities had failed, but it was able to do some science as a stationary platform before it succumbed to a drained battery and stopped transmitting.
Before getting stuck, Spirit had traveled 4.8 miles (7.7 kilometers).
As for sister rover Opportunity, Mars fortunes have been a lot kinder. Opportunity remains operational to this day and is currently exploring the edge of Endeavour Crater (in the plain of Meridiani Planum), investigating clay deposits in an exposed outcrop.
The rover is in its ninth year of operation, roving a little under 22 miles (35 kilometers) so far.
The 1997 Mars Pathfinder mission had the Sojourner rover on board, but this tiny robot didn’t produce tracks that could be spotted from space (although HiRISE has imaged Pathfinder hardware on the surface). For the record, Sojourner traveled around 330 feet (100 meters).
The tracks of Spirit, Opportunity and now Curiosity are all being documented by the HiRISE camera, helping us keep tabs on the rovers’ progress across this alien landscape.
So, the next time you hear news about Curiosity on Mars, remember that this rover — regardless of how sophisticated its technology — stands on the shoulders of two generations of Mars rover, one of which remains on Mars to this day striving to complete its first Martian marathon.
Also, there’s an infrastructure surrounding the Red Planet — three orbiters (NASA’s MRO and Odyssey, plus ESA Mars Express) provide invaluable communication links and reconnaissance imagery for their roving cousins down below.
We have robots looking out for other robots on Mars. If that’s not awesome, I don’t know what is.
Image: Curiosity’s tracks as imaged by HiRISE. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Ariz.