Upgrade to Mars rovers could aid discovery on more distant worlds

Sep 09, 2013
TextureCam snaps photos of rocks in the Mojave Desert in California. The desert rocks look similar to rocks the automated system might one day need to analyze on Mars or other far-away worlds. Credit: Kiri Wagstaff

Smart as the Mars Curiosity mission has been about landing and finding its own way on a distant world, the rover is pretty brainless when it comes to doing the science that it was sent 567 million kilometers to carry out. That has to change if future rover missions are to make discoveries further out in the solar system, scientists say.

The change has now begun with the development of a new camera that can do more than just take pictures of alien rocks – it also thinks about what the pictures signify so the rover can decide on its own whether to keep exploring a particular site, or move on.

"We currently have a micromanaging approach to ," said senior researcher Kiri Wagstaff, a computer scientist and geologist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, Calif. "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 to even make that feasible."

To help future rover and spend less time waiting for instructions from Earth, Wagstaff and her colleagues developed an advanced two-lens camera, called TextureCam. Although Curiosity and other rovers can already, on their own, distinguish rocks from other objects in photos they take, they must send images all the way to Earth for scientific analysis of a particular rock. This process costs time and limits the potential scientific scope of rovers' missions. TextureCam can do the analysis by itself.

The work is detailed in Geophysical Research Letters, a publication of the American Geophysical Union.

Scientists test TextureCam in the Mojave Desert in California. This advanced camera system for planetary rovers can scientifically assess images of rocks itself, whereas current rovers require scientists on Earth to do the analysis. Credit: Kiri Wagstaff

Micromanaging on Mars

At the beginning of each Martian day, called a sol, scientists on Earth upload an agenda to a Mars rover. This scientific schedule details nearly all of the rover's movements: roll forward so many meters, snap a photo, scoop a soil sample, run rudimentary tests on it and move on.

Even moving at light speed, instructions from Earth take about 20 minutes to reach the surface of Mars. This 40-minute roundtrip makes real-time control of the rover impossible. On Jupiter's moon Europa, where astrobiologists suspect extraterrestrial life could exist, the delay balloons 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."

While researchers recently introduced autonomous navigation to the Curiosity rover, its scientific objectives are still determined by the images it transmits back to Earth. Mars-to-Earth communication costs precious power and trickles at a bandwidth of around 0.012 megabits per second—about 250 times slower than a 3G cellphone network.

Mars orbiters can help speed up the data transfer rate, though the satellites only orbit into correct alignment a few short minutes each day. Curiosity's constrained connection limits the number of Martian images it can send back 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," said Wagstaff.

Recognizing rocks

When TextureCam's stereo cameras snap 3D images, a special processor separate from the rover's main computer analyzes the pictures. By recognizing texturess in the photos, the processor distinguishes between sand, rocks and sky. The processor then uses the size and distance to rocks in the picture to determine if any are scientifically important layered rocks.

The system's built-in processor avoids straining the rover's busy main processor. When TextureCam spots an interesting rock, it can either upload a high-resolution image back to Earth or send a message to the main processor to move toward the rock and take a sample.

"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."

From deserts to planets

In its infancy, Wagstaff and her colleagues trained TextureCam using real Martian images taken by previous rover missions. TextureCam's training worked similarly to the facial unlock feature available on smartphones and computers: The more examples of interesting rocks it was shown, the better it became at identifying the common features that made the rocks scientifically important. Recently TextureCam was successfully run through its paces in the rocky landscape of the Mojave Desert in Southern California—a useful analog for the Martian surface.

Wagstaff predicts TextureCam could greatly benefit future Mars rovers, such as the Mars 2020 , as well as missions to other planets and moons.

Explore further: NASA issues 'remastered' view of Jupiter's moon Europa

More information: Smart, texture-sensitive instrument classification for in situ rock and layer analysis, onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10… 2/grl.50817/abstract

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210
1.3 / 5 (14) Sep 09, 2013
Indeed: This article outlines a modest step forward in an area where far more advanced robotics is needed. Sending humans to other planets, has significant challenges and not as many benefits as some say. The beneficial science to send ANY probe to another world, with or without humans, is about the same for robots. Further, we are human due to our dependence on a biosphere that is best maintained on earth. The BEST spaceship for carrying humanity thru the void of space is THE PLANET EARTH. Once humans get to another world, how long will they Live, and - live and still be HUMAN, even human enuff 2 someday come back to this world and yet thrive? Advanced robotics could do everything we do and bring about a virtual presence on alien soil without the extreme expense (Life, money, time) of human space travel. I really like the idea of space travel, but, can we remain human and yet do it is my sincere root question. I vote for telepresence thru robotics. But, help me see what you see?
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Rutzs
1.7 / 5 (9) Sep 09, 2013
@210 I agree with you. In terms of human survival though, we should not completely negate the possibility of building off-world colonies.

http://www.thegua...se-space
210
1.2 / 5 (12) Sep 09, 2013
@210 I agree with you. In terms of human survival though, we should not completely negate the possibility of building off-world colonies.
http://www.thegua...se-space
Hawkings' root argument is for "Human survival" and then points out the Cuban Missile Crisis. The Cuban Missile Crisis can go wherever humanity goes, or went! We humans have been the greatest threat to human survival, from Air pollution and Chattel Slavery on up, and, on down.Our planetary system, that actively guards against space-based cataclysm here, has been broadly successful, with multi-million decade exceptions. The idea that we could terraform anything and then leave earth forever or for extended periods would cast human evolution into a new direction that could render us alien to one another. IT IS BAD ENOUGH WHEN OUR SKIN COLOR IS DIFFERENT!!! No, no, lets prepare a defense for our world, explore space and seas VIRTUALLY, your thoughts?
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TheGhostofOtto1923
1 / 5 (6) Sep 10, 2013
There are some extinction events you cannot prepare for such as pandemic and impact. But civilization-ending events are more numerous and could lead to extinction.

We may never be able to reproduce the level of technology needed to leave this planet in the event of such a catastrophe. This might just be a onetime window for the species.

You don't need to terraform mars to establish self-sustaining colonies there. Nukes and nuclear-powered earth borers can easily create enough space underground. There are plenty of raw materials enough there to duplicate the level of techno-based civilization we have here.

Independent colonies can replenish the earth in the event of catastrophe, and vice versa. It can and will be done as a matter of survival. Your argument about divergent evolution makes no sense - it is the level of sentience and technological development we need to maintain. We may just be the only example of it the universe has ever produced.
210
1.4 / 5 (11) Sep 10, 2013
There are some extinction events you cannot prepare for such as pandemic and impact. But civilization-ending events are more numerous and could lead to extinction.

Most cultures on earth that died out, human cultures, were killed off by the diseases and animosity of other cultures. Cultures that felt they were RACIALLY superior, that came from SOMEWHERE ELSE, did not mind murdering off, raping, and lynching, stealing their land and poisoning their water, and justified it with pseudo-science and religion and finally enslaving those 'other people'. Let the human race become divided by cosmic distances, not just continents or the ability to run-to-the-suburbs-to escape-THOSE-people! No, no, the differences will be profound and the value of space travel will unravel right before our eyes. Look, humans only TOLERATE humans. We RESPECT people whom we are sure can and will absolutely WIPE US OFF THE FACE OF THE EARTH! It IS good that space travel is not easy- we need time to grow up!
210
1 / 5 (10) Sep 10, 2013
You don't need to terraform mars to establish self-sustaining colonies there. Nukes and nuclear-powered earth borers can easily create enough space underground. There are plenty of raw materials enough there to duplicate the level of techno-based civilization we have here.Independent colonies can replenish the earth in the event of catastrophe, and vice versa. It can and will be done as a matter of survival. Your argument about divergent evolution makes no sense - it is the level of sentience and technological development we need to maintain. We may just be the only example of it the universe has ever produced.
If you do not need to Terraform Mars why are you using nukes and building cities under ground? Lacking earth's gravity and tidal forces, by the time two generations have been born on Mars, any healthy human athlete will be a superman on Mars, but, NOT vice versa! We humans NEED the Terran ecosystem to BE who we are. What goes 2 Mars will become Martian.
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TheGhostofOtto1923
1.8 / 5 (5) Sep 10, 2013
raping stealing lynching poisoning
So I suppose you're saying the human race is not worth saving? Religion-fueled overpopulation and it's natural precursor, tribalism, are to blame for human savagery.
the differences will be profound
So what?? They would not be as profound as the rodents and pond scum which will be the only things to survive a healthy extinction event.
what goes to mars will be Martian
Yes and they will be able to program computers and build machines. And if either they or us are extincted, intelligence will still survive.

And eventually we will all be replaced by machines, a more appropriate form of intelligence. But this might not have the chance to happen if we all remain in one very vulnerable spot.

Terraforming is making the surface of a planet habitable. I suggest you look it up.
be who we are
We are EVOLVING and always have been. Soon we will begin reconfiguring ourselves in significant ways. Your divergence argument will thus be moot.
TheGhostofOtto1923
1 / 5 (3) Sep 10, 2013
In only a few gens we will be able to create humans already adapted to living within Martian and lunar gravity wells, and perhaps even without gravity at all. And if earth populations were to be wiped out, Martians could recreate earth-adapted seed populations from genetic repositories or from scratch.
210
1 / 5 (10) Sep 10, 2013
Independent colonies can replenish the earth in the event of catastrophe, and vice versa. It can and will be done as a matter of survival. Your argument about divergent evolution makes no sense - it is the level of sentience and technological development we need to maintain. We may just be the only example of it the universe has ever produced.
"Sentience" AND technology cannot be simply uprooted from a vibrant planetary system ON/FROM a living planet and transplanted to a dead one where even the introduction of microbes could be catastrophic. We are spoiling this world and it HAS the ability to recycle carbon and nitrogen. You oppose terraforming and want to use nukes: What affect will nuclear explosions have on a planet that has no plate tectonics to make new land? No seas to help absorb both radiation and carbon? Life underground might be possible but no guarantee that a planetary catastrophe will not strike and we have to go SAVE THEM! Earth-Mars-Quake, Solar flares, storms.
210
1 / 5 (10) Sep 10, 2013
In only a few gens we will be able to create humans already adapted to living within Martian and lunar gravity wells, and perhaps even without gravity at all. And if earth populations were to be wiped out, Martians could recreate earth-adapted seed populations from genetic repositories or from scratch.

THAT is my point, they will be different enough to not be us! Look at how we treat those who are ABSOLUTELY from this planet and as human as we are...we HATE EACH OTHER! We deeply despise people we have never met but see on TV. How much more, if they move to an alien environment and grow large brains and cannot tolerate REAL sunlight/UV radiation? Our suspicions, our ideals, our evolution, has nothing in it that has prepared the human race for life without THIS earth. That state, is TRULY the Undiscovered Country. We have cultural differences on earth and the people only live across a city. Soon after mating has started, you will see dangerous levels of genetic fault doubling.
210
1 / 5 (10) Sep 10, 2013
In only a few gens we will be able to create humans already adapted to living within Martian and lunar gravity wells, and perhaps even without gravity at all. And if earth populations were to be wiped out, Martians could recreate earth-adapted seed populations from genetic repositories or from scratch.
We have NO GOVERNING BODY that can select what genetic material would be best suited for replacing people...here on earth! Once ANY human culture or biology reached Mars, it would be beyond any jurisdiction, ANY! On Earth, we would HAVE TO fight wars with the Russians, Chinese, Mayans and Aztecs over who should decide what is the best replacement DNA for Mars! The people with the nukes, AK-47's and NATOs and all the economic clout would win so the people on Mars would be immediately OR in time,one way or another, utterly lacking in gene diversity. Either Mars gentrifies or Earth does. We have too many problems in our notion of an ideal culture to trust ourselves. We HATE us!
210
1 / 5 (10) Sep 10, 2013
'Earth' we call this planet 'Earth'. Mars is called Mars an elegant God of War - Pluto a Superpower in the Demon world, Venus a goddess - of Love no less although no one cares what true love is any more. We can let her go. Saturn a ringed world and so very spectacular...and on, and on...but, who, was EARTH?
WE LIVE HERE, and we count for something. None of those other worlds have life on them worth mentioning yet.
I think, our planet needs a better name man!
LIke ARBOREA or VERDANA something mystical and melodic. Something that says to humans, "...WHEN YOU GET HERE YOU ARE HOME AND WELCOME FOR ONE LIFETIME AT A TIME." YEAH!

Earth, just sounds like, so common, like 'dirt' or 'mud' not like some place special. Maybe if we treated this place with a special name we would love it more and each other.I mean THIS place is OUR place. How about HUMANA? Earth is too 'earthy' know what I mean? Ok, just a thought that popped into my head with all this going to Mars talk flying to and fro?
TheGhostofOtto1923
2.6 / 5 (5) Sep 11, 2013
Ah I get it. You are a foaming frothing human-hater. Luckily you guys are a distinct minority.

Look up the gnome shot, operation plowshare. The cavity was habitable within 6 months. But if you're scared of radiation by all means don't go. The surface is bathed in it.

Most people are already city dwellers who spend most of their time indoors. Subterranean life will be little different.
utterly lacking in gene diversity
This didn't seem to hinder the colonization of the pacific islands. Diversity and adaptedness can be engineered. Martians will be as concerned with dispersion for survival as we are, and will reseed if necessary.
GSwift7
2.6 / 5 (5) Sep 12, 2013
If the strongest argument you can make is preserving the civilation, then it would be far easier to build a self-sustaining colony on the sea floor. Such a colony would be nearly as safe as one on another body. It would take a direct hit or a planetary scale impact to affect an ocean basin colony.
210
1 / 5 (8) Sep 12, 2013
@TheGhostofOtto1923, ghostie, Mars has at best 110 times less atmosphere than the earth does.Remember that meteor that almost hit a Russian city a few months ago? THAT would impact the martian surface, FOR SURE. You do understand that the effects of the impact would not stop at just the top two millimeters of the impact point, right? Earth is hit by meteors, several thousand, everyday. Our atmosphere does a great job of protecting us, even Mars' orbit absorbs some of the flack we never see. Putting anyone UNDER Mars will not be cheap. Tunneling for dozens or hundreds of miles on earth is not cheap. Moving all that equipment to Mars to make enough tunnels and clearing enough space to grow crops, make lakes to support waste & water needs will require the entire budgets of whole first world nations here on earth - no one reading this will live long enough to see the human race coming together for the common good on that level, excepting, something attacks us from Mars!Send robots, word-

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