Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Curiosity Does the Hokey Pokey, Prepares to Turn Itself Around

Curiosity Does the Hokey Pokey, Prepares to Turn Itself Around:

The Curiosity rover is itching to move. Since it landed a little over two weeks ago on Mars, engineers have tested all of the probe’s capabilities, most recently stretching out its robotic arm and making sure its wheels can turn. For a mission that has been going flawlessly, NASA officials also report the first small setback — one of the rover’s weather-sensing instruments is damaged.
In the animated image above, you can see the “wheel wiggle” that tests movement of the back right-corner wheel. Curiosity has six wheels, though only the corner ones are capable of steering. The motion shows that the rover is ready to go. Tonight, engineers will beam instructions to Curiosity telling it to drive forward about nine feet, turn 90 degrees, and back up. After that, it will be ready to check out nearby interesting targets, such as scorch marks left from the rocket engines on the rover’s lander, and a region known as Glenelg, where Curiosity will test its drill and scoop for the first time.
Curiosity’s arm has also been stretched out for the first time since being stowed for takeoff nine months ago, as seen in the high-resolution image below. The arm weighs as much as a small child and contains a menagerie of instruments, including a drill, scoop, and camera that can look at the microscopic features of the Martian soil.

“It will take some time to put the arm through all its paces,” said Louise Jandura, lead engineer for the rover’s sample system, during a NASA press conference Aug. 21, adding that the arm has only been tested in Earth gravity before.
Engineers will need to take some time to get used to Mars’ one-third gravity environment but once they do they will have the capabilities of one of the most complex instrument systems ever sent to another planet. “There’s a lot of exciting times in the future,” said Jandura. An animation of the arm’s movements can be seen below.


Though Curiosity’s mission thus far has been going more or less perfectly, the rover has suffered minor damage — one of its weather monitoring instruments has broken. The Rover Environmental Monitoring Station (REMS) is composed of two small booms that stick out from Curiosity’s 7-foot-tall mast.
One of these booms was sending back some funky data. “We don’t know and we may never know” what specifically was causing the problem, said Ashwin Vasavada, deputy project scientist for the mission during the press conference. But since some of REMS delicate circuit boards face outward toward the environment, engineers think that small rocks kicked up by Curiosity’s landing engines hits some wires, rendering one instrument inoperable. This means that the rover will not be able to sense wind speed and direction with that boom, degrading its weather-monitoring capabilities. Engineers will continue using the other instrument to get the best data they can.
Images: NASA/JPL-Caltech
Video: NASA/JPL-Caltech

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