Curiosity’s Middle Name

Robert Bigelow

Patience. For individuals that have become accustomed to nearly instant information access, the slow pace of data and images trickling from the newest rover on Mars may be frustrating.

In a news briefing on Monday evening, JPLMission Manager Jennifer Trosper suggested that Curiosity’s middle name should be “patience”. That is because it will take a couple of weeks to check out the rover to make sure it is safe and ready to operate. Curiosity’s wheels have not rested on any ground since well before its launch last November. After a nine month journey through space and a wild ride to the Martian surface, a thorough checkup is definitely in order.

Curiosity's First Color Image of the Martian Landscape, Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Malin Space Science Systems

Why will that take so long? A major culprit is distance. As I write this, Mars is about 155 million miles away. It takes a radio signal, travelling at the speed of light, nearly 14 minutes to traverse the distance between the two planets. And the distance is slowly increasing. With that lag time, direct control of the rover is impossible. Instead, controllers send a series of commands at the beginning of the Martian day and then wait for the rover to attempt to execute all the commands and then report back to Earth. Once those transmissions are received and processed, planning for the next day begins. This makes for slow progress.

Once all the tests are complete, the amount of new information we receive about Curiosity’s new home in Gale Crater should increase significantly. Until then, we will all need to exercise patience.

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