Curiosity Takes Its First Drive, Leaving Morse Code on Mars

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Humans, via their robotic rover, are now leaving their mark on the Red Planet.

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Wheeee! Curiosity goes for its first joy ride on Mars. (NASA)

When the creators of Curiosity built the rover that would explore Mars, they gave its wheels special treads. The marks left by Curiosity's tires as they tool through the dust of the Martian soil won't just serve as visual odometry markers, allowing Curiosity's engineers to determine the rover's orientation and distance traveled; they'll also send a message. Specifically, this message:

short long long long
short long long short
short long short short

Which is also to say, in Morse code:

. - - -
. - - .
. - . .

Which is also to say, translating that code: J-P-L, the acronym for NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory -- Curiosity's creator.

Yes. A calling card, coded into Curiosity's every move. Which was feasible for JPL engineers this time around because of Curiosity's advanced design. The wheels of Opportunity, Curiosity's predecessor, had basic, square holes, which allowed the rover to be bolted to its lander during cruise and touchdown. Since Curiosity didn't have a lander, though -- the thing, famously, pretty much landed itself -- JPL engineers suddenly had the freedom to create cleats in Curiosity's wheels that were aesthetic rather than pragmatic in function. And the Morse-to-Mars tribute to their work is what they chose.

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NASA/JPL

So it's worth celebrating that earlier today, the engineers' eponymy came to fruition: The JPL has literally left its mark on Mars. The Curiosity rover took its first drive, skimming the surface of the Red Planet and leaving Pasadena's coded calling card in its wake.

Which is also to say: Guys, we just put Morse code on Mars.

In the black-and-white image above -- a mosaic made from 23 full-resolution frames, displayed in cylindrical projection -- you can see a nearly 360-degree panorama of Curiosity's cosmic vista, complete with evidence of the rover's maiden voyage on Mars. The track marks captured by Curiosity's navigation camera represent, all together, a dance that would make Arthur Murray proud: In its first, tentative drive, Curiosity moved forward 15 feet or so, then rotated 120 degrees and reversed about 8 feet. 

And that little pivot marks the beginning of Curiosity's human-controlled wanderings on the Red Planet. Today's trip was a test drive, meant to ensure that the rover is ready to take on more arduous journeys later in its life. And Curiosity, it seems, passed the test. Two weeks after it landed on the Martian surface, the minivan-sized vehicle is still only about 20 feet from its touchdown site (which is named, as of yesterday, Bradbury Landing). But the rover is ready to roll. And to send a message, with each foot forward, on behalf of those who brought it to life: As far as Curiosity may travel, its trail will always contain a reminder of where it came from.  

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Megan Garber is a staff writer at The Atlantic. She was formerly an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab, where she wrote about innovations in the media.

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