Now that we all know that Curiosity is officially safe on Mars, I wanted to share a few things I learned and experienced at JPL during the three days I spent there.
While I've never particularly enjoyed driving, maybe it's just because I never had the right vehicle. Don't get me wrong - I'm very fond of my zippy little Corolla. But I think I could finally get really, truly excited about a road trip if I were commanding my own rover.
During a panel over the weekend, Deputy Project Scientist Ashwin Vasavada said that Curiosity has "Better suspension and more ground clearance than any car you can buy on the market. If we had to, we could drive over an obstacle the size of this table." Check out the shot below for reference.
Deputy Project Scientist Ashwin Vasavada, SAM Deputy Principal Investigator Pan Conrad and
MAHLI Principal Investigator Ken Edgett
We didn't actually destroy any furniture while at JPL, but during our visit to the Mars Yard, we got to see the "Scarecrow," a stripped down version of Curiosity, go through its paces. Here's a quick video took of the Scarecrow showing off it's rock climbing skills.
The Yard is one of the two locations used for practice runs with the rover, helping the team understand more about both the hardware and the software used to command it. I talked with rover driver Matt Heverly, who gave us a quick Drivers Ed course. Thanks to Tristam Sparks for capturing a portion of it on video...
Heverly told us, "One of the things I love about this job is the fuzziness. The nature of exploration includes unknowns. We use both engineering data and intuition to decide if we can safely go where the scientists would like us to go."
In this closer look at the rover's wheels, you'll notice some holes. Heverly explained that just like on Earth, Martian sand dunes have no real features. Reference points are needed for the rover to orient itself, so Curiosity has to create it's own. And that's where the holes come in, leaving a pattern in the sand as Curiosity rolls over it.
Fun fact: The original version of the wheels had "JPL" stamped in them, but apparently NASA wasn't thrilled about leaving JPL tracks on Mars. However, if you know anything about Morse code, look closely at the pattern of dots and dashes...
[Need a hint? This post on Wikipedia spells it out for you. Pun intended.]