NASA's Curiosity rover took its first test stroll Wednesday Aug. 22, 2012, and beamed back pictures of its accomplishment in the form of track marks in the Martian soil. Careful inspection of the tracks reveals a unique, repeating pattern, which the rover can use as a visual reference to drive more accurately in barren terrain. The pattern is Morse code for JPL, the abbreviation for NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., where the rover was designed and built, and the mission is managed.
The use of Morse Code isn't just an Easter Egg for the nerds back home. It's got a fancy name and everything:
This driving tool, called visual odometry, allows the rover to use images of landscape features to determine if it has traveled as far as predicted, or if its wheels have slipped. For example, when the rover drives on high slopes or across loose soil, it will routinely stop to check its progress. By measuring its distance relative to dozens of prominent features like pebbles or shadows on rocks -- or patterns in its tracks -- the rover can check how much its wheels may have slipped. If Curiosity has not slipped too much, it can then re-plan the next leg of its drive, taking its actual position into account.
And here's what the Morse Code generating tracks look like:
Like I said functional simplicity and vast utility.