Featured Research

from universities, journals, and other organizations

Upgrade to Mars rovers could aid discovery on more distant worlds

Date:
September 9, 2013
Source:
American Geophysical Union
Summary:
Mars rovers, such as Curiosity, currently can't make science decisions on their own. That has to change if future rover missions are to make discoveries further out in the solar system, scientists say. To help future rover missions spend less time waiting for instructions from Earth, scientists have developed an advanced two-lens camera, called TextureCam, that can think about the pictures it snaps and make science-based decisions.

Scientists test TextureCam in the Mojave Desert in California. This advanced camera system for planetary rovers can scientifically assess images of rocks itself, whereas current rovers require scientists on Earth to do the analysis.
Credit: Kiri Wagstaff

Smart as the Mars Curiosity mission has been about landing and finding its own way on a distant world, the rover is pretty brainless when it comes to doing the science that it was sent 567 million kilometers to carry out. That has to change if future rover missions are to make discoveries further out in the solar system, scientists say.

The change has now begun with the development of a new camera that can do more than just take pictures of alien rocks -- it also thinks about what the pictures signify so the rover can decide on its own whether to keep exploring a particular site, or move on.

"We currently have a micromanaging approach to space exploration," said senior researcher Kiri Wagstaff, a computer scientist and geologist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, Calif. "While this suffices for our rovers on Mars, it works less and less well the further you get from Earth. If you want to get ambitious and go to Europa and asteroids and comets, you need more and more autonomy to even make that feasible."

To help future rover and space missions spend less time waiting for instructions from Earth, Wagstaff and her colleagues developed an advanced two-lens camera, called TextureCam. Although Curiosity and other rovers can already, on their own, distinguish rocks from other objects in photos they take, they must send images all the way to Earth for scientific analysis of a particular rock. This process costs time and limits the potential scientific scope of rovers' missions. TextureCam can do the analysis by itself.

The work is detailed in Geophysical Research Letters, a publication of the American Geophysical Union.

Micromanaging on Mars

At the beginning of each Martian day, called a sol, scientists on Earth upload an agenda to a Mars rover. This scientific schedule details nearly all of the rover's movements: roll forward so many meters, snap a photo, scoop a soil sample, run rudimentary tests on it and move on.

Even moving at light speed, instructions from Earth take about 20 minutes to reach the surface of Mars. This 40-minute roundtrip makes real-time control of the rover impossible. On Jupiter's moon Europa, where astrobiologists suspect extraterrestrial life could exist, the delay balloons to over 90 minutes.

"Right now for the rovers, each day is planned out on Earth based on the images the rover took the previous day," said Wagstaff. "This is a huge limitation and one of the main bottlenecks for exploration with these spacecraft."

While researchers recently introduced autonomous navigation to the Curiosity rover, its scientific objectives are still determined by the images it transmits back to Earth. Mars-to-Earth communication costs precious power and trickles at a bandwidth of around 0.012 megabits per second -- about 250 times slower than a 3G cellphone network.

Mars orbiters can help speed up the data transfer rate, though the satellites only orbit into correct alignment a few short minutes each day. Curiosity's constrained connection limits the number of Martian images it can send back to Earth.

"If the rover itself could prioritize what's scientifically important, it would suddenly have the capability to take more images than it knows it can send back. That goes hand in hand with its ability to discover new things that weren't anticipated," said Wagstaff.

Recognizing rocks

When TextureCam's stereo cameras snap 3D images, a special processor separate from the rover's main computer analyzes the pictures. By recognizing texturess in the photos, the processor distinguishes between sand, rocks and sky. The processor then uses the size and distance to rocks in the picture to determine if any are scientifically important layered rocks.

The system's built-in processor avoids straining the rover's busy main processor. When TextureCam spots an interesting rock, it can either upload a high-resolution image back to Earth or send a message to the main processor to move toward the rock and take a sample.

"You do have to provide it with some initial training, just like you would with a human, where you give it example images of what to look for," said Wagstaff. "But once it knows what to look for, it can make the same decisions we currently do on Earth."

From deserts to planets

In its infancy, Wagstaff and her colleagues trained TextureCam using real Martian images taken by previous rover missions. TextureCam's training worked similarly to the facial unlock feature available on smartphones and computers: The more examples of interesting rocks it was shown, the better it became at identifying the common features that made the rocks scientifically important. Recently TextureCam was successfully run through its paces in the rocky landscape of the Mojave Desert in Southern California -- a useful analog for the Martian surface.

Wagstaff predicts TextureCam could greatly benefit future Mars rovers, such as the Mars 2020 rover, as well as missions to other planets and moons.


Story Source:

The above story is based on materials provided by American Geophysical Union. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.


Journal Reference:

  1. K. L. Wagstaff, D. R. Thompson, W. Abbey, A. Allwood, D. L. Bekker, N. A. Cabrol, T. Fuchs, K. Ortega. Smart, texture-sensitive instrument classification for in situ rock and layer analysis. Geophysical Research Letters, 2013; DOI: 10.1002/grl.50817

Cite This Page:

American Geophysical Union. "Upgrade to Mars rovers could aid discovery on more distant worlds." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 9 September 2013. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/09/130909153000.htm>.
American Geophysical Union. (2013, September 9). Upgrade to Mars rovers could aid discovery on more distant worlds. ScienceDaily. Retrieved September 16, 2014 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/09/130909153000.htm
American Geophysical Union. "Upgrade to Mars rovers could aid discovery on more distant worlds." ScienceDaily. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/09/130909153000.htm (accessed September 16, 2014).

Share This



More Space & Time News

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Featured Research

from universities, journals, and other organizations


Featured Videos

from AP, Reuters, AFP, and other news services

East Coast Treated To Rare Meteor Sighting

East Coast Treated To Rare Meteor Sighting

Newsy (Sep. 16, 2014) — Numerous residents along the East Coast reported seeing a bright meteor flash through the sky Sunday night. Video provided by Newsy
Powered by NewsLook.com
Space Race Pits Bezos Vs Musk

Space Race Pits Bezos Vs Musk

Reuters - Business Video Online (Sep. 16, 2014) — Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos' startup will team up with Boeing and Lockheed to develop rocket engines as Elon Musk races to have his rockets certified. Fred Katayama reports. Video provided by Reuters
Powered by NewsLook.com
NASA’s Curiosity Rover Finally Reaches Long-Term Goal

NASA’s Curiosity Rover Finally Reaches Long-Term Goal

Newsy (Sep. 15, 2014) — After more than two years, NASA’s Mars Curiosity Rover reached Mount Sharp, its long-term destination. Video provided by Newsy
Powered by NewsLook.com
SpaceX's Elon Musk Really Wants To Colonize Mars

SpaceX's Elon Musk Really Wants To Colonize Mars

Newsy (Sep. 14, 2014) — Elon Musk has been talking about his goal of colonizing Mars for years now, but how much of it does he actually have figured out, and is it possible? Video provided by Newsy
Powered by NewsLook.com

Search ScienceDaily

Number of stories in archives: 140,361

Find with keyword(s):
 
Enter a keyword or phrase to search ScienceDaily for related topics and research stories.

Save/Print:
Share:  

Breaking News:
from the past week

In Other News

... from NewsDaily.com

Science News

Health News

    Environment News

      Technology News



      Save/Print:
      Share:  

      Free Subscriptions


      Get the latest science news with ScienceDaily's free email newsletters, updated daily and weekly. Or view hourly updated newsfeeds in your RSS reader:

      Get Social & Mobile


      Keep up to date with the latest news from ScienceDaily via social networks and mobile apps:

      Have Feedback?


      Tell us what you think of ScienceDaily -- we welcome both positive and negative comments. Have any problems using the site? Questions?
      Mobile iPhone Android Web
      Follow Facebook Twitter Google+
      Subscribe RSS Feeds Email Newsletters
      Latest Headlines Health & Medicine Mind & Brain Space & Time Matter & Energy Computers & Math Plants & Animals Earth & Climate Fossils & Ruins