We've still got a little over a hundred days before Mars Science Laboratory tries not to smash itself into a million bits while landing on Mars, but the rover's stunt double (and its human slaves) are hard at work practicing their moves in preparation for August 6th, when Curiosity will make its thrilling touchdown at Gale Crater.
The crazy (seriously, crazy) sky-crane landing seems like it has to be by far the most dangerous part of the entire mission. While it's more or less up to the rover itself to do all the tricky bits (since, among other reasons, there's a time delay that precludes direct control by human operators), that doesn't mean that all of the engineers at JPL will be sitting back eating peanuts . Even if everything does perfectly, they'll still be very busy (and very stressed) as you can see in this practice run-through:
Meanwhile, before buttoning Curiosity up and sending it on its way, JPL "xeroxed" the rover to provide itself with a copy to mess with while they're waiting for the real thing to get where it's going. Specifically, they're practicing things like arm targeting, where the rover's vision system generates a 3D terrain map that it then uses to select a spot to send the arm. Getting this to work properly means a great deal of careful calibration between the cameras, modeling software, and the motors on the arm itself, and it's definitely a good idea to get all your tweaking on Earth first, since there won't be anyone on Mars to buff out dents from accidental collisions:
Vids like these give a hint, but just a hint, about the amount of work being put into making sure that this robot arrives on Mars in good health and then accomplishes a lot of science while it's there. And despite the size difference between Curiosity and its predecessors, this new rover has some rather large wheels to fill, considering that Opportunity is, eight years on, preparing for another season of Martian science. Will Curiosity perform this well? Thanks to a whole bunch of smart people testing everything that's possible to test in preparation for Curiosity's arrival, we're optimistic. But let's get this bot landed first.
[ MSL ]