Engineers operating the Mars rover Curiosity will put its robotic arm through a set of movements to allow them to tailor its motions to less gravity than it experienced on Earth. Then it's off to explore.
In its first month on Mars, NASA's rover Curiosity has traveled a grand total of 357 feet, briefly flexed its robotic arm, with its mother lode of instruments where a hand would be, and now it's time to stop for what researcher Aileen Yingst calls a bit of Martian tai chi.
Over the next week, engineers will put the robotic arm – shoulder, elbow, wrist, and instrument turret – through a more rigorous set of movements that will allow engineers to tailor the arm's motions to less gravity than it experienced during tests on Earth.
And then, it's on to Glenelg – a spot another 1,100 feet away that researchers are eager to reach. It lies at the confluence of three geological formations, some of which may hint at the presence of liquid water in the crater early in the planet's history.
Thus, rocks there may bring Curiosity one step closer to answering the question the mission aims to address: Did Gale Crater and its central mountain, Mt. Sharp, once host an environment that microbial life might have found to its liking?
Before Curiosity makes its halting beeline for Glenelg, however, the coming week's tai chi sessions need to get the sag out of Curiosity's arm, explains Matt Robinson, the lead engineer for arm testing and operations.
On Earth the arm weighs more than 150 pounds and sports a 73-pound turret on the business end. The turret hosts two instruments – a camera that serves as a geologist's magnifying glass and a spectrometer that uses x-rays and alpha particles to analyze the chemical make-up of rocks. In addition the turret also sports a drill, a dust-removal tool, and hardware to scoop soil and drill samples and send them to chemistry labs inside Curiosity's body.
The arm operates based on angles controllers want the various joints to form in order to put instruments gently on their rocky targets. But Mars has only about 38 percent of earth's gravity, meaning that the computer controlling the arm has to learn how to live without the sag the arm experienced on Earth.