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Curiosity’s ‘driver team’ will face challenging trip to Martian mountain

Speaking to an audience in Taipei Sunday, Yen Jeng, the only Taiwanese on Curiosity’s “driver team,” talked about what it is like to drive NASA’s $2.5 billion rover.

Referring to himself as a “taxi driver,” Yen told the audience that he and his colleagues spend approximately 10 hours each day preparing for Curiosity’s next move before transmitting their instructions to the rover.

During an interview with The Central News Agency, Yen said that the rover moves an average of 50-60 meters per day. “Its furthest record was 140 meters a day,” Yen told CNA.

Yens also told CNA that the best moment of the Curiosity mission so far was seeing the first photo of the rover’s landing. Yen admitted that taking a photo of the rover was exceedingly difficult.

Given that the rover was traveling at a high speed, Yen said it was “not easy” for the snapshot to be taken.

“It meant that our landing model was accurate, to know its trajectory,” he said. This is just one example of a maneuver that he and his team spent countless hours practicing and perfecting before passing the instructions on to the rover.

Yen’s description of what it is like to drive the rover comes as Curiosity prepares for a rather-busy New Year. According to The Associated Press, Curiosity will set off toward a Martian mountain in 2013. Curiosity’s current schedule shows the rover taking off for Mount Sharp in mid-February.

“We’ll probably be ready to hit the pedal to the metal and give the keys back to the rover drivers,” mission chief scientist John Grotzinger told The AP in a recent interview.

Curiosity’s trip to Mount Sharp will be an important one, as much is expected of the rover. The AP notes that the mountain, which towers three miles above the center of Gale Crater, has some interesting layers of rock that scientists are excited to explore. The rover’s trip to Mount Sharp is all part of NASA’s quest to determine whether Curiosity’s landing site ever had the right environmental conditions to support life.

Yen and his “driver team” will have to be on top of their game when they maneuver Curiosity toward the mountain.

“We’ll need to be pretty careful,” project manager Richard Cook told The AP. “We may find terrain that we’re not comfortable driving in, and we’ll have to spend time driving around stuff.”

Yen told CNA that reaching and exploring Mount Sharp will give scientists a better understanding of Mars’ geological history.

Being a part of the rover’s “driver team” has been an honor, according to Yen.

 According to a NASA press release, Curiosity recently took a self-portrait using its Mars Hand Lens Imager camera. The rover held the MAHLI camera in more than 50 positions in 24 hours to create a single scene combining all the images, putting together a full-color portrait of the rover itself.

You can view a new version of Curiosity’s self-portrait here.