After over a year on Mars, NASA's Curiosity rover has pretty much run through its list of firsts. As it continues its “long trek” to Mount Sharp, however, it’s still showing a few surprises. This week, NASA announced that Curiosity picked up the pace of its travels by completing its first two-day autonomous drive, in which the unmanned explorer did one leg of an autonomous drive on Sunday, then completed it on Monday.

Previously, Curiosity’s autonomous drives were only executed after a finishing a drive planned by mission control on Earth using images supplied by Curiosity. When the nuclear-powered rover goes into autonomous mode, it uses stereo images from its navigation cameras to plot a safe path with its onboard computer.

The drive completed Monday is the first where the rover ended an autonomous drive on one day, then continued it the next day by itself. According to NASA, on Sunday, Curiosity drove about 180 ft (55 m) along a path planned by mission control, then switched to autonomous mode and traveled 125 ft (38 m) with the rover selecting waypoints and the safest path. It then stored navigation variables in its non-volatile memory, because the volatile memory is erased at night as the rover “sleeps.”

On Monday, Curiosity reloaded the variables and drove another 105 ft (32 m). In all, it covered about 410 ft (125 m). This brought it within about 262 ft (about 80 m) from "Cooperstown,” a rocky outcrop where there are targets for examination. These will be the first on which Curiosity has used its arm-mounted instruments since September 22.

"What interests us about this site is an intriguing outcrop of layered material visible in the orbital images," says Kevin Lewis of Princeton University. "We want to see how the local layered outcrop at Cooperstown may help us relate the geology of Yellowknife Bay [on Mars] to the geology of Mount Sharp."

The plan is to make this only a brief stop, so Curiosity can carry out its long trek to Mount Sharp more quickly. NASA says that another advantage of the new system is that it allows mission control to plan activities for several days, which can be implemented on Fridays and before holidays.

Source: NASA