Curiosity driving autonomously ​for the first time

Google may be hard at work developing the first generation of self-driving cars here on Earth, but NASA has them beat by a bit.  Today the Curiosity rover became not the first, but the third rover to drive on Mars under its own control.   Following once again in the footsteps of Spirit and Opportunity, Curiosity can now choose her own path across the surface of the red planet. 

This is the view Curiosity uses to determine a safe path.  (Image credit: NASA)

This is a big deal because it increases how much terrain the rover can cover in a day.  Previously, mission controllers at JPL would analyze a set of images and plot a route for the rover to take.  When Curiosity completed that route, she'd take another set of images and wait for further instruction from Earth.  Now, she can continuously analyze images during her drive and automatically plot the safest route around obstacles. 

That's good news, because Curiosity is in the midst of a major trek towards nearby Mount Sharp.   Once there, the rover will undertake a study of Martian surface evolution by studying the exposed layers at the base of the mountain.

Google can rest easy though - in her first year on Mars Curiosity has traveled 1.39 km (0.86 mi), hardly highway distances!