The technology powering the Mars Curiosity Rover

By Stuart Sumner
08 Aug 2012 View Comments
NASA's Mars rover

The Mars Curiosity Rover, a robot sent to Mars by Nasa principally to investigate the possibility of extra-terrestrial life on the planet, uses many technologies which will be familiar to those in the tech industry.

It landed in a crater near the planet's equator at 06:32 BST on 6 August, and will soon travel around its immediate surroundings, intending to impress observers with an array of high-resolution colour images.

Further reading

The $2.5bn (£1.6bn) rover is currently undergoing a systems test by Nasa, after which it will start moving around its immediate vicinity, checking for signs of life.

Bespoke software for the Rover was developed at Carnegie Mellon University in the US. It helps the robot to navigate, and avoid potential hazards such as cliffs or overly steep inclines.

Curiosity is able to plot a large number of possible paths as it winds its way between rocks and craters on its wheels, eventually selecting what the software deems to be the safest route between obstacles.

These routes are spotted by the nine light-weight cameras it carries with it, which are also used to capture the stunning images which have been delighting the world since it landed.

The Rover uses a state of the art image compression system, developed at Nasa's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California. This technology has increased the number of images Curiosity is able to return to Nasa's mission control, compared with the previous Mars landing rovers, Spirit and Opportunity in 2004.

Spirit stopped communicating for two days during its mission eight years ago, as a software glitch caused its system to continually reboot once its flash memory was full.

The image compression technology used by Curiosity enables it to take images that are 12 megabits, and compress them down to one megabit, thus taking up far less space on the memory card.

The compressor also splits each image into about 30 segments, reducing the chance of losing an entire image when it is sent back to Earth via the rover antennas and what Nasa calls its 'Deep Space Network'.

Curiosity talks to Mars Odyssey, a satellite put into Martian orbit by Nasa in 2004.

The rover has 16 minutes to talk to the orbiter as it travels in and out of range from horizon to horizon. It uses a UHF antennae to transmit information up to the satellite.

Nasa has set up a Twitter account for the robot, which has been 'tweeting' in an idiosyncratic style, evoking memories of the robot 'Johnny Five' from the 1986 film Short Circuit.

"Good golly miss MAHLI! New color pic from Mars Hand Lens Imager shows tan sands, no @instagram req!" it tweeted recently, referring to Facebook's Instagram app which is able to give photos a sepia finish – pointing out that such a colour is natural on the 'red planet'.

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