Emerging Tech

Curiosity rover adjusts its attitude to its Martian surroundings

Like a surly teenager, everyone’s favorite Martian explorer, NASA’s Curiosity rover, suffered from an attitude problem last week. “Attitude” is how engineers refer to the rover’s ability to locate itself spatially, and it is essential for the rover to have accurate attitude information to move around and perform operations safely. This information is stored in Curiosity’s memory, along with information about its environment, and it uses this to calculate whether it is safe to make a particular movement.

This Hazcam image shows Curiosity's arm extended out to perform an APXS analysis of the bedrock. Curiosity has to know the exact angle of every joint to move safely.
This Hazcam image shows Curiosity’s arm extended out to perform an APXS analysis of the bedrock. Curiosity has to know the exact angle of every joint to move safely. NASA/JPL-Caltech

“Partway through its last set of activities, Curiosity lost its orientation,” NASA scientist Dawn Sumner wrote in a blog post on Monday. “Some knowledge of its attitude was not quite right, so it couldn’t make the essential safety evaluation. Thus, Curiosity stopped moving, freezing in place until its knowledge of its orientation can be recovered.”

The good news was that Curiosity maintained contact with mission control, so the scientists were able to work out what the problem was and formulate a plan to address the issue.

The engineers began by informing Curiosity of its correct attitude to make sure no problems arose when the rover started moving again. It was also important to ensure that the rover could perform safety checks once more. And they wanted to investigate how the problem occurred so they could avoid it happening again in the future.

Image of the rover's arm taken over the weekend.
Image of the rover’s arm taken over the weekend. NASA/JPL-Caltech

The plan was enacted last week and was a success. Curiosity was able to ascertain its correct orientation, which meant it was able to move its arm and to start roving once again.

Now, with that hiccup sorted, the scientists are making plans for more science missions. Curiosity will be using its ChemCam instrument to investigate targets with a method called laser-induced breakdown spectroscopy, in which it uses a highly energetic laser to excite a sample and analyze its composition. It will also be using its Mastcam to create a mosaic image of the area it is currently exploring, called the Western Butte, before snapping multispectral images that capture light across different wavelengths.

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