Curiosity rolls out, and writes a message on Mars


August 30, 2012

Curiosity's track marks spelling out "JPL" in Morse code (Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Curiosity's track marks spelling out "JPL" in Morse code (Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

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The NASA Mars rover Curiosity began its mission of exploration this week and as it rolled out, it wrote the place of its birth on the Martian surface. The 4x4-sized unmanned explorer will travel a quarter of a mile (400 m) to an area where it will test its robotic arm and may use its sample-collecting drill for the first time. As it goes along, the treads on Curiosity’s six wheels spell out “JPL” (Jet Propulsion Laboratory) over and over in Morse code.

Curiosity began its drive on Tuesday when it traveled 52 feet (16 m). This was the nuclear-powered rover’s third drive since its landing on August 6th, the previous two being part of its three-week post-landing shakedown, and the longest to date. Its destination is Glenelg, an area that scientists say is the convergence of three types of terrain where it might be suitable for life to exist, and then it will head in the direction of Mount Sharp.

"We are on our way, though Glenelg is still many weeks away," said Curiosity Project Scientist John Grotzinger of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, California. "We plan to stop for just a day at the location we just reached, but in the next week or so we will make a longer stop."

Curiosity was built and is monitored by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena. The six 20-inch (50.8-cm) aluminum wheels that propel it at 1.5 inches (4 cm) per second each contain their own electric motor and gearbox. Though not built for speed, they provide enough torque to help Curiosity deal with the rough Martian terrain and their titanium spokes help to minimize any jolts.

The rover’s wheel treads are also unusual in that they spell out “JPL” in Morse code (.--- for J, .--. for P, .-.. for L), on the Martian soil. This isn’t an exercise in self-aggrandizement (so JPL keeps insisting), but acts as Curiosity’s odometer. By keeping Curiosity’s cameras trained on its tracks, mission control uses the code to measure how many times the wheels turn and from that they can calculate the distance traveled.

In addition to putting Curiosity’s robotic arm through its paces, the explorer will also use its mast camera to send back high resolution images of Mount Sharp. Matching of these images with those taken from its landing site, Bradbury Landing, will allow scientists to build 3D images that will be used to identify features, detect hazards and plan Curiosity's driving route.

Source: NASA

About the Author
David Szondy David Szondy is a freelance writer based in Monroe, Washington. An award-winning playwright, he has contributed to Charged and iQ magazine and is the author of the website Tales of Future Past. All articles by David Szondy

"... to measure how many times the wheels turn ... " LOL - this must be an exercise to see how gullible us readers actually are. 6 independent wheels absolutely require a centrally controlled turning coordination, or else risk ripping themselves off, burning out, or getting bogged. No way on earth (mars?) would they not know how many turns each wheel made already...


Or Christopher, you are missing something. A wheel can turn and you can go precisely nowhere - its called being bogged.

Marc 1

Any asymmetric tread pattern would do the job of an odometer so it is both.

re; christopher

These are space scientists and engineers not English majors, perhaps they meant how many times the tire rolled over, as apposed to spinning in place. Applying power to a motor does not mean that it turned and sensors fail.


It's a pat on their own back for sure. Just use a single magnet in the rim of either side's center wheel, and each time it sweeps past the pick up coil, you've got one revolution. Add them all up and you know with enough accuracy as to how many miles were traveled for what they're doing there. It's not like the DMV where you have to report actual miles on a motor vehicle at time of sale or for insurance rates. Or are they planning on sending it to Jiffy Lube every 3,000 Miles?? Why didn't they just have it print out JPL in English??


Expanded Viewpoint

re; Expanded Viewpoint

Like Pikeman said, The tracks tell how far the tire has rolled not how many times the tire has turned. this is important in navigation.

I think that using JPL as the distinguishing mark was intended as an inside joke.


its nice to see old fashioned morse code still being used for something snazzy. this is one of the great geek moments in space exploration.

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