[ Watch the Video: Smart Cameras For Future Mars Rovers ]
Brett Smith for redOrbit.com – Your Universe Online
As urgent as interplanetary exploration might seem, NASA must deal with a significant communication delay that acts as a bottleneck between robotic explorers like the Curiosity rover on Mars and scientists here on Earth.
To help address that problem, a team of scientists based at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, Calif. have developed a new camera system that can not only take pictures of alien rocks, it can also think about what the images mean – allowing it to decide if it should keep exploring a particular area or move on.
The point is to make our robotic explorers more autonomous so they don’t have to check in every time a decision needs to be made.
“We currently have a micromanaging approach to space exploration,” said senior researcher Kiri Wagstaff, a computer scientist and geologist at JPL. “While this suffices for our rovers on Mars, it works less and less well the further you get from the Earth. If you want to get ambitious and go to Europa and asteroids and comets, you need more and more autonomy to even make that feasible.”
Currently, scientists on Earth must upload an agenda to a Mars rover at the beginning of each Martian day, or sol. This scientific itinerary outlines almost all of the rover’s movements: roll forward, snap a photo, collect a soil sample, and so on.
Even though the instructions are transmitted at the speed of light, they take approximately 20 minutes to reach Mars. The 40-minute roundtrip makes real-time control of Curiosity impossible. If NASA were to search for extraterrestrial life on Jupiter’s moon Europa, where scientists suspect life could exist, the delay grows to over 90 minutes.
“Right now for the rovers, each day is planned out on Earth based on the images the rover took the previous day,” said Wagstaff. “This is a huge limitation and one of the main bottlenecks for exploration with these spacecraft.”
Curiosity’s scientific objectives are currently based on the images it sends back to Earth. The relative snail’s pace of these communications costs precious power at a bandwidth of around 0.012 megabits per second—around 250 times slower than a 3G cellphone network connection.
While Mars orbiters can help speed the data transfer rate, the Martian satellites currently in orbit are only in the correct alignment a few short minutes each day, severely limiting the number of Martian images it can transmit to Earth.
“If the rover itself could prioritize what’s scientifically important, it would suddenly have the capability to take more images than it knows it can send back. That goes hand in hand with its ability to discover new things that weren’t anticipated,” Wagstaff said.
According to a report in Geophysical Research Letters, the new system, called TextureCam, can snap 3D images using stereo cameras and a special processor recognizes textures in the photos. The processor uses the size and distance to rocks in the picture to decide if there is anything of scientific importance in the images.
“You do have to provide it with some initial training, just like you would with a human, where you give it example images of what to look for,” said Wagstaff. “But once it knows what to look for, it can make the same decisions we currently do on Earth.”
Wagstaff envisions TextureCam greatly benefiting future Mars rovers, such as the Mars 2020 rover, in addition to missions on other planets and moons.