Curiosity Wheel Tracks Seen From Orbit / How Do You Drive A Rover Anyway?

Two parallel tracks left by the wheels of NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover cross rugged ground in this photo taken on Dec. 11, 2013 from orbit. At the time, it had driven about 2.86 miles (4.61 km) since its August 2012 landing in Gale Crater. Click to enlarge. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona

Photos taken by the Curiosity rover’s cameras often leave the impression of a wide-open, easily navigable landscape. Sure there are plenty of rocks to avoid, but the way ahead toward Mt. Sharp looks clear, right? Maybe not so much once you get an orbital perspective.

Curiosity driver Jeng Yen. Credit: NASA

NASA recently released photos taken by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter showing Curiosity’s zigzagging tracks across surprisingly rugged, up-and-down terrain. The rover is slowly moving from a bright dust-covered area to a region with a darker surface, where windblown sand scours the surface relatively free of dust.

Studying the images I gained a new appreciation for the work done by the Jeng Yen and the team of Curiosity drivers.

Yen, who’s worked at the Jet Propulsion Lab since 1998, has successfully developed rover models and simulation methods used by the Spirit and Opportunity rovers during their explorations of Mars. He also pilots the Curiosity rover.

Driving a robot car remotely from a distance of 117 million miles resembles playing a video game but only after you’ve done a lot of homework. After mission scientists choose a target, Yen uses pictures taken by Curiosity along with an elevation map of the region created with data gathered from the Mars orbiter to plot a safe path to the target area.

NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover (lower left) and tracks left by its driving appear in this portion of a Dec. 11, 2013, observation by the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera on NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. The wheel tracks are about 10 feet (3 m) apart. Click to enlarge. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona

Next, he creates a drive sequence of various turns and moves to follow the plotted path and then simulates the path using special software. Finally, any potential obstacles are discovered – and avoided – by examining the route with stereo imagery.

View from Curiosity’s navigational camera on Jan. 8, 2014. The open landscape is deceptive. There are slopes and other obstacles for which detailed elevation data and 3D modeling are needed to navigate the terrain safely. Click to enlarge. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Then he does it all over again and makes his request from the science and engineering teams to move to the target. If approved, Yen gets comfortable and toggles Curiosity along its chosen way. Seeing the photos stream back to Earth is the favorite part of his job.

Future Mars rover drivers? The Duluth East robotics team pilot their robot named “Archie” to pick up inner tubes and place them on pegs during a competition. Credit: Bob King

While we can be sure there’s a lot of hard work involved, Yen and colleagues must enjoy the immense satisfaction of exploring another planet in real time. With the tremendous surge recently in high school robotics programs and competitions, a career goal of becoming a rover driver on Mars or the moon can’t help but inspire.

Note: Source for information on Jeng Yen’s rover piloting skills HERE.


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