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Curiosity's powerful robotic arm is being put to use, too. The seven-foot robotic arm is larger and more sophisticated than those used in earlier Mars missions. In 2003, NASA sent two Exploration rovers to Mars, but they were considerably smaller than Curiosity. At more than 150 pounds, Curiosity's robot arm is about half the weight of an Exploration rover and strong enough to pick one up.
Curiosity extended its robotic arm for the first time on Aug. 20, two weeks after the rover landed on Mars. The arm carries a number of tools, including a robotic hand, drill, scoop, brush, and a Swiss Army knife-like implement. It will be used to move rock samples into the rover's on-board lab instruments and dig, dust, and otherwise probe the planet's surface.
[ For more on the Curiosity rover mission, see Curiosity Lands On Mars: 10 Amazing Facts. ]
Curiosity's robotic arm was designed to be tough enough to protect its electronic toolset, said Brett Kennedy, the cognizant engineer for the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL), in an interview with InformationWeek.
NASA engineers are already working on future advances for robotic arms, including an ability to "feel" the surrounding area. "We've already learned so much. We're incorporating it into the next rover," said Kennedy, who is also group supervisor for robotic vehicles and manipulators at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California. Although the purpose of the next mission, scheduled for 2016, is primarily to drop off equipment on Mars, there will be another rover mission after that. By then, Kennedy hopes the rover will have an arm that can feel the surrounding environment, allowing it to avoid situations that could cause damage to the rover or throw it off course.
With Curiosity's arm, Kennedy explained, "If you push hard on something, if it came up to a rock that was really weak, it will fracture, but the arm will continue pushing."
NASA is testing a sensor on Curiosity that could evolve into the arm's having greater sensitivity. "The next time we fly an MSL-like rover, using [the sensor] as part of the control system will be accepted technique," Kennedy said. The end result, he said, will be arms that "can actually feel what they're doing" and react automatically to the harsh environment.
The technology shows promise, but still has a ways to go. "The sensor will notice something weird has happened," Kennedy said. At that point, it will probably stop and ask for help. "But at least we've gotten that far."
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