Autonomous systems help NASA’s Perseverance do more science on Mars


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This mosaic shows part of the path that NASA’s Perseverance Mars rover traveled through a part of the boulder field called “Snowdrift Peak.” With the help of its self-driving autonomous navigation system, AutoNav, Perseverance traversed the terrain much faster than previous rovers. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

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This mosaic shows part of the path that NASA’s Perseverance Mars rover traveled through a part of the boulder field called “Snowdrift Peak.” With the help of its self-driving autonomous navigation system, AutoNav, Perseverance traversed the terrain much faster than previous rovers. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

A computer pilot helps a six-wheeled NASA geologist as he searches for rock samples that can be brought to Earth for deeper investigation.

In about a third of the time it will take NASA’s other Mars rovers, Perseverance recently made its way through a field of rocks more than 1,700 feet wide (about half a kilometer). While planners mapped out the rover’s general routes, Perseverance managed the finer points of navigating the area nicknamed “Snowdrift Peak,” courtesy of AutoNav, the self-driving system that tracks while driving between areas of scientific interest. Helps in reducing.

In fact, since landing in February 2021, Perseverance has set records for rover speed on Mars. AutoNav’s achievements were detailed in a paper about the rover’s autonomous systems published in the July issue of the journal. science robotics,

Tyler Del Sesto has worked on the software for Perseverance’s AutoNav for seven years. He thought that sometimes the obstacles placed before Perseverance’s earthly twin were a little too much for optimism during testing in the Mars Yard at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. He changed his mind after Snowdrift Peak.

“It was much more dense than anything Perseverance had seen before – absolutely packed with these big rocks,” said Lead del Sesto, Perseverance’s deputy rover planner at JPL in Southern California. “We didn’t want to get around to it because it would have taken us weeks. More time driving meant less time for science, so we jumped right in.”

On June 26, Perseverance entered the eastern flank of Snowdrift Peak. Including two stops for stones that the science team wanted to inspect, the straight-line route through snowdrifts would cover 1,706 feet (520 m). By the time the rover left the western edge of the boulder field on July 31, it had covered a distance of 2,490 feet (759 m) – much of the additional distance coming from the autonav around the rocks, which was used to plan the route. Was not visible in orbiter pictures taken. ,


Created with data recorded by NASA’s Perseverance during its July 15 autonomous drive, this animation shows how the rover used AutoNav to navigate around the 14-inch (35-centimeter) rock at center-left. Did. Blue and magenta lines radiating from the front of the rover indicate paths with potential hazards. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

“If you remove the sols (Mars days) dedicated to mission science, the trip through Snowdrift Peak took only six autonomous drive sols, which is probably 12 sols faster than Curiosity,” Del Sesto said. ” “Of course, everyone on the team knows that we have reached this level of performance by standing on the shoulders of giants. Sojourner, Spirit, Opportunity and Curiosity were pioneers.”

giants on wheels

Some type of silicon-based navigators have been in use since the first Mars rovers began avoiding rocks in 1997. At the time, Sojourner, the size of a microwave oven, had to stop every 5.1 inches (13 centimeters) to take stock of its computer brain. Observe the new environment before proceeding further. The next Mars rovers – the golf cart-sized Spirit and Opportunity (which arrived in 2004) – could cover distances of up to 1.6 feet (0.5 meters) before they too would have to stop and figure out the next move.

Curiosity, which landed in 2012, recently got a software upgrade to help it make driving decisions, but Perseverance has several advantages: With fast cameras, the rover is smart enough to process its route in real time. Can take images faster, and has an additional computer dedicated solely to image processing, eliminating the need to pause to decide its next step.

“Our rover is a perfect example of the old adage ‘two brains are better than one,'” said Vandi Verma, lead author of the paper and the mission’s chief engineer for robotic operations at JPL. “Perseverance is the first rover to have two computer brains working together, allowing it to make instant decisions.”

This autonomous capability has allowed Perseverance to set new records for off-roading on Mars, including a one-day drive distance of 1140.7 feet (347.7 m) and the longest drive without human review: 2296.2 feet (699.9 m ) is included. But these achievements occurred while the rover was moving over relatively flat terrain at the bottom of Jezero Crater, without large rocks and other craters standing in its way. That’s why this recent navigation of boulder-strewn Snowdrift Peak impressed even the engineers who plan rover outings.


This composite image, acquired on June 29 and annotated at JPL using visualization software, shows Perseverance’s passage through a dense section of boulders. The light blue line indicates the center path of the front wheel, while the dark blue lines indicate the path of the rover’s six wheels. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

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This composite image, acquired on June 29 and annotated at JPL using visualization software, shows Perseverance’s passage through a dense section of boulders. The light blue line indicates the center path of the front wheel, while the dark blue lines indicate the path of the rover’s six wheels. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

new campaign new area

While the boulder field metaphor for perseverance may be in the rearview mirror, there are even more driving challenges ahead. The rover began its fourth science campaign on September 7 by crossing the “Mandu Wall”, a rolling ridgeline separating two geologic units along the inner edge of Jezero Crater’s western rim. Orbital data indicate that the region is filled with carbonates – which could provide invaluable data on the environmental history of Mars as well as preserve signs of ancient microbial life that may have existed in the region.

“The time when a rover science team could look at features on the Martian horizon and file them away for future consideration is over,” said Perseverance project scientist Ken Farley of Caltech in Pasadena. “We have to be vigilant because Perseverance’s autonomous capabilities can make some of the things we see from a distance look right in front of us on one sol—or even behind us—on the next.”

With new exploration possibilities come new challenges: broken rocks, high slopes, and sand dunes, as well as small impact craters in Perseverance’s near future.

“This new terrain is definitely going to throw some curveballs at us and AutoNav,” said Mark Maimone, deputy team lead for robotic operations on Perseverance. “But the science is here. We’re ready.”

more information:
Vandi Verma and others, Autonomous robotics driving the Perseverance rover’s progress on Mars, science robotics (2023). DOI: 10.1126/sirobotics.ad3099

Journal Information:
science robotics


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