Though the rovers that NASA and other space agencies have sent to the Moon and Mars are important scientific instruments, they also look like a lot of fun to pilot. After all, who wouldn’t want to take the six-wheeled Curiosity probe out for a spin around the Martian plains? While few people will ever get a chance to actually drive a delicate, multi-million dollar machine, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory has the next best thing: a driving game.
Just in time to celebrate the Curiosity rover’s fifth year exploring Mars, NASA has released a new game called “Mars Rover.” In the app, players pilot a cartoon version of Curiosity across the ruddy Martian terrain, scanning for pockets of water as they navigate rough hills and potholes. While much easier than controlling a real rover, the simple app gives gamers a little taste of what it must feel like to pilot a robot in perilous conditions.
Like the real rover, which is dealing with some serious wear-and-tear after years trundling around the harsh Martian environment, players have to pilot an extremely fragile vehicle. Even the most innocent-seeming rocks and bumps can irreparably damage the rover’s wheels, leaving the expensive instrument dead in the water, so to speak.
While the game is fun and plenty addictive, it also gives players a glimpse at future rover missions. Take for example the Mars 2020 rover currently under development. The virtual rover uses similar radar to scan underground water deposits. The more data the player can collect before breaking the rover, the more points they accrue along the way.
"We're excited about a new way for people on the go to engage with Curiosity's current adventures on Mars and future exploration by NASA's Mars 2020 rover too," Michelle Viotti, manager of Mars public engagement initiatives at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, says in a statement.
Currently, the real Curiosity rover is at the beginning of a months-long climb up Mars’ Mount Sharp to gather more data about how the Red Planet transformed from a place with running freshwater to the arid, rusty-red desert it is today. Over the course of its mission, the trusty robot has traveled nearly nine miles across the planet’s surface—a big step for a little robot.
You can take “Mars Rover” out for a spin on both desktop and smartphone by downloading the app from the NASA website.