Mars Rovers Learn Some New Tricks

Spirit seen from space. Image credit: NASAConsider this for a moment. NASA’s Mars Exploration rovers are nearing their third anniversary of crawling around the surface of Mars. Spirit arrived on January 3rd, 2004, and Opportunity showed up 21 days later. And they were only supposed to be usable for a few months.

NASA engineers here on Earth have put together a new software package for the rovers, to teach them some new skills.

The first new trick is to give them the ability to make intelligent decisions when studying clouds and dust devils. They’ve caught these fast-moving mini-twisters on camera before. The rovers will be able to analyze newly captured photographs for signs of the dust devils, and only send back the relevant parts of the images, saving bandwidth.

Their second trick is called “visual target tracking”. The rovers will able to recognize landscape features as they move, helping them understand their position relative to the terrain. They will be able to maneuver around obstacles much more quickly.

The third skill will enable the rovers to decide on viable science targets all by themselves. Instead of waiting for commands from Earth, the rovers will be able to analyze their local surroundings and choose a location to study that would yield the best science.

These new improvements should speed up their travel speed, and increase the number of places they can analyze on the surface of Mars.