You might be familiar with Hal from 2001: A Space Odyssey, a robot whose sentient actions made life a little dicey for Hal's astronaut friends. Mars rover Opportunity just got a “Hal” infusion from NASA. Space.com reports that new software uploaded to the rover now allows Opportunity to decide just what kind of observations it wants to make about Mars.
Opportunity has been roaming the surface of Mars for seven years. The largely solar-powered machine travels along the planet’s surface, taking pictures of the changing landscape. But now, it will be able to make additional decisions about the kind of photographs it will take. Opportunity stops to analyze rocks and other interests for the scientists at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.
This new software is making things much easier for Opportunity. The software is called Autonomous Exploration for Gathering Increased Science, or AEGIS. It allows Opportunity to photograph a vast array of objects. Formerly, images of objects had to be transmitted to Earth for analysis. Based on these pictures, ground operators would check for targets of interest to examine on a later day. Valuable time would be lost, and ground operators might miss further details if they decided the object wasn’t a high priority.
Now, Opportunity can use the formerly wasted “in-between” time to go on to investigate something of interest. As Tara Estlin of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory told Space.com, "It's a way to get some bonus science.”
The new software has already proved helpful to the rover. On March 4, Opportunity found an unnamed rock after analyzing a wider-angle photo taken by the rover's navigation camera at the end of a drive. According to Estlin, "It found exactly the target we would want it to find. This checkout went just as we had planned, thanks to many people's work, but it's still amazing to see Opportunity performing a new autonomous activity after more than six years on Mars."
While its sister rover, Spirit, is hunkered down for the Martian winter, Opportunity remains on track for the crater Endeavor. Scientists are excited to see exactly what this newly equipped rover will find.
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