When Should Robots Take Risks Exploring Other Worlds?

The path followed by Perseverance in the Jezero Crater since landing in February 2021. Credit: NASA

On May 1st, 2009, after five years on the Martian surface, the Spirit rover got stuck in a patch of soft sand (where it would remain for the rest of its mission). On February 13th, 2019, NASA officials declared that Spirit’s sister – the Opportunity rover – had concluded its mission after a planetary dust storm forced it into hibernation mode about seven months prior. And in March 2017, the Curiosity rover’s wheels showed signs of their first break, thanks to years of traveling over rough terrain. Such are the risks of sending rover missions to other planets in search of discoveries that can lead to scientific breakthroughs.

But what constitutes an acceptable risk for a robotic mission, and when are mission controllers justified in taking them? As it turns out, a pair of researchers from the Robotics Institute‘s School of Computer Science at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) in Pittsburgh have developed a new approach for weighing the risks against the scientific value of sending planetary rovers into dangerous situations. The researchers are now working with NASA to implement their approach for future robotic missions to the Moon, Mars, and other potentially-hazardous environments in the Solar System.

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Mars 2020 Rover Gets its Helicopter Sidekick

An engineer works on attaching NASA's Mars Helicopter to the belly of the Mars 2020 rover - which has been flipped over for that purpose - on Aug. 27, 2019, at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech.

Work on the Mars 2020 Rover is heating up as the July/August 2020 launch date approaches. Mission engineers just attached the Mars Helicopter to the belly of the rover, where it will make the journey to Mars. Both the solar-powered helicopter and the Mars Helicopter Delivery System are now attached to the rover.

NASA’s Mars Helicopter will be the first aircraft to fly on another planet. The small rotor-craft only weighs 1.8 kg (4 lbs.) and is made of lightweight materials like carbon fiber and aluminum. It’s largely a technology demonstration mission, and is important to NASA. The overall mission for the Mars 2020 rover won’t depend on the helicopter, but NASA hopes to learn a lot about how to proceed with aircraft on future missions by putting the Mars helicopter through its paces on Mars.

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