Mars Rovers Get Four Upgrades

NASAhas made its Marsrovers even smarter with computer upgrades beamed through space that give therobots greater power to act on their own on the redplanet.

Themulti-megabyte software upgrades installed four new capabilities into the MarsExploration Rovers Spiritand Opportunity. Opportunity and Spirit have both lasted far longerthan expected, giving NASA to field-test new capabilities on Mars useful toboth the current missions and those of future rovers.

[Video:All Eyes on Mars]

The"auto-place" capability enables the rovers to calculate the besttargets on which to place their instruments. Before, researchers would have towait for images from the rovers, command them to perhaps move a bit to line upjust right, and then plan a course for the arm to follow to bring theinstruments down.

"Auto-placetries to eliminate all that work," Jet Propulsion Laboratory software engineerKhaled Ali told "We just checked out the autonomous modeon that and we should see some real benefits from that soon."

The"visual target tracking" capability enables the roversto lock onto and keep recognizing a target as they move towards it, even if itsappearance changes in size or angle as the rovers get closer or run up a slope.

Ideally,the visual target tracking capability will combine with the auto-place featurefor an ability dubbed "go and touch," which will allow engineers onEarth to pick a target, for the rover will drive up to and then placeinstruments on," Ali said.

Thenew onboard science capability, often simply dubbed "watch," helpsthe rovers recognize dust devils and clouds, so they can take pictures forscientists and not waste time taking endless snapshots researchers don't want,freeing up rover communication time for additional scientific investigations."Dust devil season is starting up on Mars, so the onboard sciencecapability should become very useful in the near future," Ali said.

Thefinal new capability, dubbed D*, helps the rovers plan maneuvers away from oraround obstacles. "You could drop them in a middle of a maze, and theywould find their way out," Ali said. "Still, ever since Spirit wasseverely hobbled, with one wheel not working anymore, it hasn't really had thechance to use it, and the area Opportunity is in doesn't present it with asmany obstacles, so I'm not sure we'll really ever get to make full use of D*with these rovers."

Whilethe upgrades were installed in September, NASA is still gradually checking eachout to make sure each is safe for us. "I'm guessing it will take anothercouple of months," Ali said.

TheMars Exploration Rovers both landed on Mars a little more than three Earthyears now Opportunity has been on Mars for 1,087 Martian days, or sols, whichis 997 more than it was supposed to last, and has just logged more than 10kilometers (6.2 miles) of travel. Spirit has lasted 1,107 sols, or 1,017"past warranty," and has logged about 6.9 kilometers (4.3 miles).

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Charles Q. Choi
Contributing Writer

Charles Q. Choi is a contributing writer for and Live Science. He covers all things human origins and astronomy as well as physics, animals and general science topics. Charles has a Master of Arts degree from the University of Missouri-Columbia, School of Journalism and a Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of South Florida. Charles has visited every continent on Earth, drinking rancid yak butter tea in Lhasa, snorkeling with sea lions in the Galapagos and even climbing an iceberg in Antarctica. Visit him at