Clever Video Game Controls Curiosity on Mars

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The Curiosity Mars Rover prompted high fives and cheers when it landed successfully Sunday night, but now the hard part begins. Equipped with 3-D goggles and sophisticated software, humans are able to control everything the rover does. Think of this as the ultimate video game.

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Driving and controlling the rover isn't like steering a remote-control car here on Earth, according to Brian Cooper, NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory's lead driver. Cooper, who created software for every previous Mars rover, explained the difference to Gizmodo's Brent Rose. Since there's up to a 20-minute delay in the signal between Earth and Curiosity, the rover could inadvertently drive off a cliff.

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To help the science and engineering teams determine where the exciting prospects are on the planet, Cooper's software allows them to plot paths for the rover. And, for the first time, the rover is transmitting images from stereoscopic cameras so Cooper and his colleagues can see the Mars landscape in 3-D from Curiosity's point of view. These unique views help the team spot potential obstacles for the slow-moving rover. Drivers spend long hours preparing the rover's next moves. Using simulation software, the team drives Curiosity over obstacles to see how it will potentially perform. According to the article:

"The planners can put on a pair of 3D glasses to see the terrain with a sense of scale and distance. So they plan out what looks to be the best route, they send the commands, and then they rely on the rover's intelligence to improvise a way to get there."

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Manipulating everything from the arm and the drill to the wheels itself is all done with keyboard an mouse. However, unlike Spirit and Opportunity (RIP), this rover has built-in intelligence to move autonomously and avoid obstacles in the process. That's a mode not usually employed, though, according to Maxwell. During most of its long journey to Mount Sharp to look for evidence of life, Curiosity will be human-operated.

"You never know what you're going to find," Cooper told Gizmodo. Even if they don't find anything surprising, in my mind driving a Mars rover equals 1 gazillion points.

Image: An artist's rendering of the Curiosity Rover on Mars. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

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