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Learning to 'drive' Mars rover Curiosity [Google+ Hangout]

August 16, 2012 |  8:05 am

How do you drive the Mars rover Curiosity?

NASA has been preparing for years to move the rover around Mars. And next week, officials are likely to start taking Curiosity for a spin.

Times science writer Monte Morin is to discuss how the rover will roam around the Red Planet during a Google+ Hangout on Thursday at 1 p.m. PDT. Readers can ask questions in the comments below or on Twitter using the hashtag #asklatimes.

Since its dramatic touchdown on Mars on Aug. 5, Curiosity has been doing an extended "stretch" of sorts -- unfolding its limbs, testing its cameras and sending reassuring notes back to Earth.

In the coming days, engineers at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in La Cañada Flintridge will test the rover's steering actuators. Then Curiosity is to take its first few "steps" -- driving perhaps a few feet before turning around and surveying the spot where it landed.

Morin recently wrote about Curiosity's "drivers":

The San Gabriel Mountains rise over a rough patch of sun-baked volcanic boulders, dusty flagstones and earthen slopes. Amid the terrain, a hulking creature of titanium, aluminum and silicon creeps through the sand, its wheels squealing like nails on a chalkboard.

NASA engineer Brian Cooper watches as the mock-up of the Mars rover inches over jagged lava rocks that would have stopped previous versions.

The "Mars Yard" at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory is meant to be a torture test, but this rover is crushing every piece of it beneath its six, snare-drum-sized aluminum wheels.

"We've essentially put a monster truck on Mars," Cooper said as he guided the robot across the landscape in La Cañada Flintridge with his iPhone. Of course, the real rover on Mars won't be so easy, requiring thousands of lines of programming to make its way.

Cooper is part of a select group of engineers and programmers who have trained for years to drive the rover Curiosity on its journey over the harshness of Gale Crater.

Their job is an arcane calling that is mentally grueling and demands a unique temperament and skill set. Only 20 people worldwide have qualified.


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