Google+ Mars Travel: August 2013

Mars Science Laboratory's First Autonomous Drive

On Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) Curiosity's 376th sol on Mars (August 27 2013) the rover completed its first autonomous drive on Mars, when its computers chose a route and drove the rover for 10 meters (33 feet) through previously uncharted terrain before stopping. This feature analyzes photos taken by MSL to determine a safe path ahead, enabling the rover to safely and efficiently cover ground on its own, without guidance from human controllers. This technology can identify safe routes beyond what human controllers are able to assess; thus MSL can move further every drive. 

As Mark Maimore, MSL driver and mobility engineer, explained "Curiosity takes several sets of stereo pairs of images, and the rover's computer processes that information to map any geometric hazard or rough terrain. The rover considers all the paths it could take to get to the designated endpoint for the drive and chooses the best one." 

Below is a mosaic of many images taken immediately following that drive. Click the image to see it in high resolution.

Mosaic of images taken by MSL on its 376th Sol on Mars. East is left and North is right (Southwest is center)
Source: NASA/JPL (Click Image for High Resolution Version)

The large mound in the left of the image is not Mount Sharp, but rather it is called Discovery Ridge and contains rocks no larger than .3 meters (1 foot) in diameter. The rise to the right of Discovery Ridge is wind-deposited material that has accumulated on the surface. This accumulation of material is approximately 4 meters (13 feet) long and lies approximately 10 meters (33 feet) from Curiosity

MSL Curiosity - One Year on Mars

One year ago today Mars Science Laboratory touched down on Mars. Since August 5th 2012 Curiosity has transmitted over 190 gigabits of data, sending more than 70,000 images back to Earth. Not only that, but Curiosity has driven over one mile and fired its laser 75,000 times at 2,000 different targets.

Click for larger image from NASA/JPL
With all that activity, many discoveries have been made, the most important of which have been identified in NASA's infographic on the right. Click the image to see the larger version from NASA.

While MSL's overall mission is to scale Mount Sharp at the center of Gale Crater and study it's various layers, the science team decided to examine nearby outcrops Glenelg and Yellow Knife which is where many of the discoveries to date have been made.

One of the most significant discoveries was that Mars once had an environment that was conducive to microbial life, but that Mars somehow lost most of it's atmosphere "through processes that occurred at the top of the atmosphere" (NASA)

The next NASA mission to Mars, Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN), launches in November of this year and will attempt to determine what caused the atmosphere to bleed into space billions of years ago.

MSL Curiosity has also discovered evidence of an ancient streambed in the form of smooth, rounded sedimentary rocks, that likely rolled with a current for many miles. Bedrock, made up of millions of smaller compacted sediments has been discovered. This type of compaction is only known to occur in the presence of flowing water.

Further evidence that Mars once contained water has been found in the form of "gravels, streambed deposits, an unusual type of possibly volcanic rock, water-transported sand dunes, mudstones, and cracks filled with mineral veins." (NASA)

For a better understanding of MSL Curiosity's  one mile journey, take a look at the below  annotated image from NASA.

Click to see a larger version of this annotated image from NASA
MSL Curiosity's journey began one year ago today, and in that time it has traveled one mile and made numerous discoveries. The next year will see the rover complete its primary goal of  scaling Mount Sharp and provide even more insight into the past and current environment on Mars. Who knows what amazing discoveries will be made in the next year!