Mars rover Curiosity completes first autonomous mission

The NASA rover Curiosity that touched down on Mars one year ago has been a major success. Ben Tracy reports on why its work is being called the "Superbowl of planetary exploration."

It took 376 days, but NASA has cut the umbilical cord on Mars rover Curiosity. On Tuesday, the exploration vehicle completed its first self-guided mission.

As it covered nearly 33 feet of terrain, Curiosity crossed a surface depression that Earth-based engineers had not been able to analyze ahead of time.

"We could see the area before the dip, and we told the rover where to drive on that part. We could see the ground on the other side, where we designated a point for the rover to end the drive, but Curiosity figured out for herself how to drive the uncharted part in between," John Wright, a rover driver at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, explained in a statement.

The autonomously navigated segment of the trip was just a fraction of the full 141 feet covered on Tuesday.

The key to auto-nav, as NASA engineers call the system, is its ability to analyze images that it takes as Curiosity drives around. It uses the analysis to determine the safest driving path. Up until now, NASA engineers have determined the safest routes and controlled the vehicle. Auto-nav is able to calculate safe routes for areas that are beyond.

"Curiosity takes several sets of stereo pairs of images, and the rover's computer processes that information to map any geometric hazard or rough terrain," Mark Maimone, rover mobility engineer and rover driver at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., explained in a press release. "The rover considers all the paths it could take to get to the designated endpoint for the drive and chooses the best one."

Using autonomous navigation will allow Curiosity to pick up the pace as it continues the journey towards Mount Sharp, a three-mile high mountain that NASA expects will hold many clues to the geological history of the red planet. Thus far, the rover has moved less than one mile in more than a year of exploration, and it has more than four miles to go before reaching the mountain.

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    Danielle Elliot is a freelance science editor and reporter for CBS News. She holds an M.A. in science and health journalism from Columbia University and a B.A. in broadcast journalism from the University of Maryland. Follow her on Twitter - @daniellelliot.