NASA’s newest six-wheeled robot on Mars, the Perseverance rover, is beginning an epic journey across a crater floor seeking signs of ancient life.
That means the rover team is deeply engaged with planning navigation routes, drafting instructions to be beamed up, even donning special 3D glasses to help map their course.
But increasingly, the rover will take charge of the drive by itself, using a powerful auto-navigation system. Called AutoNav, this enhanced system makes 3D maps of the terrain ahead, identifies hazards, and plans a route around any obstacles without additional direction from controllers back on Earth.
“We have a capability called ‘thinking while driving,’” said Vandi Verma, a senior engineer, rover planner, and driver at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California. “The rover is thinking about the autonomous drive while its wheels are turning.”
That capability, combined with other improvements, might enable Perseverance to hit a top speed of 393 feet (120 meters) per hour; its predecessor, Curiosity, equipped with an earlier version of AutoNav, covers about 66 feet (20 meters) per hour as it climbs Mount Sharp to the southeast.
“We sped up AutoNav by four or five times,” said Michael McHenry, the mobility domain lead and part of JPL’s team of rover planners. “We’re driving a lot farther in a lot less time than Curiosity demonstrated.”
As Perseverance begins its first science campaign on the floor of Jezero Crater, AutoNav will be a key feature in helping get the job done.
This crater once was a lake, when, billions of years ago, Mars was wetter than today, and Perseverance’s destination is a dried-out river delta at the crater’s edge. If life ever took hold on early Mars, signs of it might be found there. The rover will gather samples over some 9 miles (15 kilometers), then prep the samples for collection by a future mission that would take them back to Earth for analysis.
“We’re going to be able to get to places the scientists want to go much more quickly,” said Jennifer Trosper, who has worked on every one of NASA’s Martian rovers and is the Mars 2020 Perseverance rover project manager. “Now we are able to drive through these more complex terrains instead of going around them: It’s not something we’ve been able to do before.”