Computing Community Consortium Blog

The goal of the Computing Community Consortium (CCC) is to catalyze the computing research community to debate longer range, more audacious research challenges; to build consensus around research visions; to evolve the most promising visions toward clearly defined initiatives; and to work with the funding organizations to move challenges and visions toward funding initiatives. The purpose of this blog is to provide a more immediate, online mechanism for dissemination of visioning concepts and community discussion/debate about them.

The Science Behind Curiosity

August 9th, 2012 / in big science, research horizons, Research News / by Erwin Gianchandani

Mars Science Laboratory [image courtesy NASA].There’s been a lot written about NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory this week, in light of its successful landing on the surface of Mars early Monday morning — including the observation that today’s smartphones are about as smart as Curiosity’s computers. Turns out there was an extraordinary amount of computer science and engineering that went into the rover’s development and testing.

According to Computerworld:

Despite the fact that Curiosity doesn’t have a huge amount of compute power, it’s still a smart machine, able to scan its environment and make decisions.


[Devin Kipp, an operations lead on NASA’s Curiosity team] noted that the rover has an Auto Nav, or automatic navigation, mode, which enables it to monitor its own wheels for slippage and use cameras to scan the ground for rocks or holes that could impede its travel.


“It can drive and figure out if the hazard poses a risk to the safety of the rover,” said Kipp. “If it believes it might, it will stop and phone home and verify if we want it to keep driving. It’s pretty smart. We have a heightened confidence in it.”


The rover, which can receive software updates from Earth, also has a robotic arm, which is designed to use various tools to dig for rock and soil samples, as well as to scoop up the samples and deposit them in onboard scientific instruments.


“It’s about the science. That’s why we do this,” said Kipp. “But the expertise that we’ve developed on how to build, develop, test and run a mission like this is really a national treasure… Hopefully we’ll have following missions where we can use what we’re learning here.”

According to NASA, Curosity’s parts are “similar to what any living creature woluld need to keep it ‘alive’ and able to explore”:

  • body: a structure that protects the rovers’ “vital organs”;
  • brains: computers to process information;
  • temperature controls: internal heaters, a layer of insulation, and more;
  • “neck and head”: a mast for the cameras to give the rover a human-scale view;
  • eyes and other “senses”: cameras and instruments that give the rover information about its environment;
  • arm and “hand”: a way to extend its reach and collect rock samples for study;
  • wheels and “legs”: parts for mobility;
  • energy: batteries and power; and
  • communications: antennas for “speaking” and “listening”.

To read more about Curiosity’s electronics — robotics, two computers, four chips, and software — check out the the Computerworld story, NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory website, these news stories about research supporting the effort conducted by computer scientists at University of Tennessee at Knoxville and Carnegie Mellon University, respectively, or this perspective about what Curiosity might mean for the future of robotics.

(Contributed by Erwin Gianchandani, CCC Director)

The Science Behind Curiosity

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