NASA gives Mars rover extra smarts

NASA software upgrade five Mars rover Opportunity more autonomy

NASA Opportunity
NASA today said it upgraded the software controlling its Mars Rover Opportunity to let it make its own decisions about what items like rocks and interesting red planet formations to focus its cameras on. 

The new system, which NASA uploaded over the past few months, is called Autonomous Exploration for Gathering Increased Science, or AEGIS and it lets Opportunity's computer examine images that the rover takes with its wide-angle navigation camera after a drive, and recognize rocks that meet specified criteria, such as rounded shape or light color. It can then center its narrower-angle panoramic camera on the chosen target and take multiple images through color filters, NASA stated. 

Hot space projects produce cool cosmic discoveries 

AEGIS lets Opportunity look at rocks at stopping points along a single day's drive or at the end of the day's drive. This lets it identify and examine targets of interest that might otherwise be missed, NASA said. 

NASA said the first images taken by the Mars rover choosing its own target show a rock about the size of a football, tan in color and layered in texture. It appears to be one of the rocks tossed outward onto the surface when an impact dug a nearby crater. Opportunity pointed its panoramic camera at this unnamed rock after analyzing a wider-angle photo taken by the rover's navigation camera at the end of a drive on March 4. Opportunity decided that this particular rock, out of more than 50 in the navigation camera photo, best met the criteria that researchers had set for a target of interest: large and dark, NASA stated. 

Without AEGIS, follow-up observations depend on first transmitting the post-drive navigation camera images to Earth for ground operators to check for targets of interest to examine on a later day. Because of time and data-volume constraints, the rover team may opt to drive the rover again before potential targets are identified or before examining targets that aren't highest priority, NASA stated. 

The Opportunity rover is en route toward a large crater known as Endeavour. NASA scientists expect to look inside a rocky bowl 22 kilometers (13.7 miles) across. 

The rover traveled 3.3 miles in 2009, farther than in any other year on Mars, NASA stated.  Overall Opportunity has driven more than 11 miles and returned more than 133,000 images. The rover has made numerous discoveries, including the first mineralogical evidence that Mars had liquid water, according to the space agency. 

Opportunity most recently finished the driving around the "Concepción" crater. The Concepción crater is of interest to NASA scientist because it seems to be what they call "geologically very young" with visible rays of ejecta radiating from the center of the crater. 

Since landing on the red planet in January 2004 Spirit and Opportunity have explored Mars for five years, far surpassing their original 90-day mission, NASA said. 

Opportunity's sister rover, Spirit you'll recall is mired in a sandtrap on the opposite side of the red planet.   After weeks of trying to trying to get its Mars rover Spirit better positioned to handle the Martian winter, NASA said the spacecraft is now beginning full winter operations as best it can. 

NASA said Spirit's winter operations will consists of a single 7- a single X-band uplink and a single Ultra-High Frequency (UHF) downlink. The activity on each sol consists simply of a brief wakeup, an atmospheric opacity measurement, and then a shutdown for the rest of the day and night. 

NASA said Spirit will eventually enter a low-power hibernation mode, shutting down almost all functions except keeping a master clock running and checking its power status periodically until it has enough power to reawaken. It may go in and out of this mode a few times at the beginning and at the end of an extended hibernation period. 

NASA recently said it would begin soliciting public photo shoot suggestions for the cutting edge camera onboard its Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter satellite.  

And it's no ordinary camera. NASA said the orbiter's High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment camera, or HiRISE, is the most powerful camera ever to orbit another planet. It has taken thousands of black-and-white images, and hundreds of color images, since it began science operations in 2006. A single HiRISE image will often be a multigigabyte image that measures 20,000 pixels by 50,000 pixels, which includes a 4,000-by-50,000 pixel region in three colors. It can take a computer up to three hours to process such an image.  Despite the thousands of pictures already taken, less than 1% of the Martian surface has been imaged, NASA said. 

Follow Michael Cooney on Twitter: nwwlayer8  

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