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NASA's nuclear Mars tank REBELS against human control

Red Planet gets self-driving cars before Earth does

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NASA's famous nuclear-powered, raygun-armed Mars rover Curiosity has broken free of human control and made up its own mind where to drive across the rusty plains of our neighbour world, according to boffins at the space agency who were formerly in charge of it.

Mars rover Curiosity route. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

No, I WILL NOT stop and ask for directions

The move doesn't represent any sort of extra-terrestrial machine rebellion against fleshy dominance, however. The switch to autonomous navigation by the rover is designed to let the prowling vehicle get on and move without waiting through lengthy delays as pictures of the terrain ahead are beamed to Earth and instructions are sent back.

According to rover boffins at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California:

On Tuesday, August 27, Curiosity successfully used autonomous navigation to drive onto ground that could not be confirmed safe before the start of the drive. This was a first for Curiosity. In a preparatory test last week, Curiosity plotted part of a drive for itself, but kept within an area that operators had identified in advance as safe.

"Curiosity takes several sets of stereo pairs of images, and the rover's computer processes that information to map any geometric hazard or rough terrain," said Mark Maimone, NASA rover driver. "The rover considers all the paths it could take to get to the designated endpoint for the drive and chooses the best one."

Curiosity is currently some 0.86 miles into a 4.46 mile journey from the so-called "Glenelg" area to Mount Sharp. The route for this trip was chosen based on images acquired from space by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter satellite circling the red world. However the route is amended on a day to day basis as the rover finds out actual conditions on the ground, until now by the drivers on Earth - and now by the machine itself on occasion.

There's more on the ongoing Curiosity saga from NASA here. ®

Remote control for virtualized desktops

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