Mars Rover Gets Mind of Its Own
NASA's Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity took this image in preparation for the first autonomous selection of an observation target by a spacecraft on Mars. The more-than-50 rocks in this image, one of which has been selected by the rover for further stu
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

NASA's Mars rover Opportunity is getting a chance to call its own science shots on the red planet.

New software uploaded to the intrepid robot now allows Opportunity to make its own decisions about whether or not to make additional observations of Mars rocks it spots when it arrives at a new location.

The rover has already taken its first automated images of Martian rocks to test out how well the new program works.

"It's a way to get some bonus science," said rover driver Tara Estlin of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.,? also a member of JPL's Artificial Intelligence Group, which developed the new software.

Opportunity, now in its seventh year on Mars along with its sister Spirit, is currently making good progress to its next target, the large crater Endeavor. At that destination, and all along its about 7-mile (12-km) journey there, Opportunity will analyze rocks and other features of its surroundings to help scientists learn more about the Martian terrain.

The new software system on Opportunity is called Autonomous Exploration for Gathering Increased Science, or AEGIS.

With it, Opportunity?s computer can 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.

Using the software on Opportunity is a way to take advantage of the rover's longevity to test out advances in robotic autonomy for future missions.

Without the software, 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.

The first images taken by a 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.

"It found exactly the target we would want it to find," Estlin said. "This checkout went just as we had planned, thanks to many people's work, but it?s still amazing to see Opportunity performing a new autonomous activity after more than six years on Mars."

Other upgrades to software on Opportunity and its twin, Spirit, since the rovers? first year on Mars have improved other capabilities. These include choosing a route around obstacles and calculating how far to reach out a rover?s arm to touch a Martian rock.

In 2007, both rovers gained the know-how to examine sets of sky images to determine which ones show clouds or dust devils, and then to transmit only the selected images.

Opportunity is making steady progress towards Endeavor, driving four times last week for a total of 935 feet (285 meters). Spirit, meanwhile, is hunkered down for the Martian winter; its electronics are becoming steadily colder, though the rover is still awake.

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