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NASA's Mars Rover Makes Longest One-Day Trek

The Mars Curiosity Rover covers 100 meters in a day, though most of it is downhill. Next up: autonomous navigation

2 min read
NASA's Mars Rover Makes Longest One-Day Trek

A robot driving 100 meters in a day can seem like mechanical snail. The world's fastest human sprinters, after all, cover the same ground in less than 10 seconds. But the modest distance marks the longest one-day journey yet for NASA's Mars Rover Curiosity as it roams across the Red Planet in search of once-habitable spots.

The day-long journey of 100.3 meters (329 feet) on July 21 was more than double the rover's previous record of 49 meters, according to NASA engineers manually plotted out a safe driving route across the Martian terrain—a warm-up before they begin using the rover's autonomous navigation system to calculate safe routes by itself.

"What enabled us to drive so far on Sol 340 [340th Martian day of the mission] was starting at a high point and also having Mastcam images giving us the size of rocks so we could be sure they were not hazards," says Paolo Bellutta, a rover planner at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif, in a press release.  "We could see for quite a distance, but there was an area straight ahead that was not clearly visible, so we had to find a path around that area."

NASA planners can use the images taken by the Navigation Camera (Navcam) on Curiosity's mast as well as the ones from the telephoto-lens Mast Camera (Mastcam) to calculate driving distance. The rover has covered 1.23 kilometers (0.81 miles) in total on Mars as of 23 July, NASA officials say.

After spending almost a year on the Martian surface, Curiosity has already completed its main mission of showing that the planet was once habitable. (Part of the rover's toolkit for that job involved using a laser to zap Martian rocks and analyze the chemistry of the samples.) But NASA plans to keep Curiosity roving in search of other areas where ancient life may have once existed.

Turning on Curiosity's autonomous navigation will allow the robot to go on drives beyond the safe routes manually plotted out by its human handlers. Self-driving is crucial for Mars missions because it takes 14 minutes for command signals from Earth to reach Curiosity—meaning that routes cannot be changed in real time by NASA planners back on Earth.

Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

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Economics Drives Ray-Gun Resurgence

Laser weapons, cheaper by the shot, should work well against drones and cruise missiles

4 min read
In an artist’s rendering, a truck is shown with five sets of wheels—two sets for the cab, the rest for the trailer—and a box on the top of the trailer, from which a red ray is projected on an angle, upward, ending in the silhouette of an airplane, which is being destroyed

Lockheed Martin's laser packs up to 300 kilowatts—enough to fry a drone or a plane.

Lockheed Martin

The technical challenge of missile defense has been compared with that of hitting a bullet with a bullet. Then there is the still tougher economic challenge of using an expensive interceptor to kill a cheaper target—like hitting a lead bullet with a golden one.

Maybe trouble and money could be saved by shooting down such targets with a laser. Once the system was designed, built, and paid for, the cost per shot would be low. Such considerations led planners at the Pentagon to seek a solution from Lockheed Martin, which has just delivered a 300-kilowatt laser to the U.S. Army. The new weapon combines the output of a large bundle of fiber lasers of varying frequencies to form a single beam of white light. This laser has been undergoing tests in the lab, and it should see its first field trials sometime in 2023. General Atomics, a military contractor in San Diego, is also developing a laser of this power for the Army based on what’s known as the distributed-gain design, which has a single aperture.

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