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NASA Makes Mars Rover Smarter

AEGIS software autonomously analyzes images taken by the exploratory vehicle's wide-angle camera, speeding data collection.

NASA Mars Rover

Artist's rendering of NASA's Mars Rover
Courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech

(click for larger image)

NASA has updated its Opportunity Mars rover with software that allows it to make decisions about whether it should immediately re-photograph certain rocks or parts of the planet’s terrain.

The system, called the Autonomous Exploration for Gathering Increased Science (AEGIS), helps researchers revisit areas of interest on the planet that might otherwise have been missed because of a lag time in analyzing images from the rover, according to NASA.

AEGIS works by immediately examining images taken by the rover’s wide-angle camera and determining whether rocks in the images meet certain preprogrammed criteria for shape or color.

Opportunity can then use its panoramic camera to center in on those rocks or areas of terrain target and take more images through color filters.

Without this capability, the burden of choosing which terrain to re-examine depended on ground operators on Earth who examined transmitted images from the rover after a drive.

The operators would examine the images and make note of rocks or terrain that should be examined on a later day, but would likely take the rover on another drive before revisiting those sites.

NASA scientists can change the criteria for choosing targets in AEGIS depending on which environment the rover is exploring. For instance, in some parts of the Mars terrain, dark and angular rocks could be of higher-priority than light and rounded rocks, NASA said.

NASA spent six years developing AEGIS, which developers said will be useful for developing narrower field-of-view instruments on future rovers.

NASA received funding from several programs -- including the New Millennium Program, the Mars Technology Program, the JPL Interplanetary Network Development Program, and the Intelligent Systems Program -- to help it build the software.

The space agency has been updating software on both Opportunity and its twin rover Spirit since they were first launched seven years ago to improve how data is collected on the red planet.