The landing of Curiosity on Mars and breathtaking pictures it is beaming back to the earth is fascinating. We all heard that a NASA team is remotely controlling the car-sized rover as it moves ahead on the Red Planet. The time lag is 14 minutes to get a signal from the rover that is 35.2 crore miles away.

But what if the rover faces a ditch or a rough patch? It is wise enough to send a signal back home, but it will take 14 minutes for it to reach the NASA team. It will take some more time for them to analyse the issue and send directions. It could be too late for the rover.

The NASA team at Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), which controls the rover, has taken a cue from video gamers to plot a path for the rover. On average, the team tests a 40-metre path to test and then guide the rover to a safe drive.

The team is using 3D Vision glasses developed by the chipmaker NVIDIA to see Mars in 3D and plan the rover path in a game-like environment virtually. The team devised a plan to address the challenge.

“The team developed a simulated environment, like a video game, to test each action before telling the rover to move. The Robot Sequencing and Visualisation Program, or RSVP, is a fully 3D virtual environment with Martian terrain captured by the rover,” an NVIDIA release said.

“By inserting a detailed 3D model of Curiosity, and using off-the-shelf 3D Vision glasses, the JPL team can model every movement to see how Curiosity would behave. This not only helps with navigation, but also helps them test complicated movements of the robotic arm (like drilling and recovering soil samples) to ensure each motion will be unimpeded,” it said.

Using NVIDIA Quadro 5000 graphics cards, 120-Hz Planar 3D Vision-ready LCDs and 3D Vision glasses, the team can watch a realistic rendering of Curiosity moving through the Gale Crater in real time.

kurmanath.kanchi@thehindu.co.in

(This article was published on August 16, 2012)
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