for National Geographic News
Armed with high-resolution cameras and infrared sensors, the Mars rovers have been collecting data from the red planet in unprecedented detail (see images taken by the Mars rovers).
But, some researchers say, the robotic space explorers could boost their performance if they added another powerful tool to their arsenal: whiskers.
Whiskered animals such as rats can detect an object's size, shape, texture, and orientation with just a few sweeps of their body bristles.
So how do the animals sense this 3-D data with what are basically overgrown hairs? Scientists have been puzzling over the features for nearly a century.
Now, in a report appearing in tomorrow's issue of the journal Nature, researchers in Illinois say they may have solved the mystery.
What's more, the team has already applied their insights to building robotic whiskers that may one day appear in everything from assembly lines to space and deep-sea rovers.
By a Whisker
Using their whiskers, rats gather three coordinates—similar to latitude, longitude, and elevation—to discern an object's contours, such as the features of a human face.
Scientists believe that the height of each whisker and its angle from nose to tail supply the equivalents of longitude and elevation.
"The mysterious coordinate [latitude] has been how far out along the length of the whisker the rat touched something," said study co-author Mitra Hartmann, a mechanical and biomechanical engineer at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois.
"Without knowing that distance, the rat can't tell how far away is an object, and it can't figure out three-dimensional properties," she added, noting that whiskers lack nerves that could relay the information to the brain.
Hartmann and colleague Joseph Solomon suspect that rats instinctively determine the distance based on the torque—a turning or twisting force—felt in their whisker follicles.
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