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Nasa's Perseverance rover 'takes the wheel' in search of signs of ancient life

AutoNav is considered to be the key feature in helping the Perseverance rover in its first science campaign on the floor of Jezero Crater.
This photo shows Nasa's Ingenuity Mars Helicopter after its sixth flight, captured by the Mastcam-Z imager aboard Nasa's Perseverance rover.(Nasa File Photo)
Published on Jul 02, 2021 06:54 AM IST
By | Written by Deepali Sharma | Edited by Meenakshi Ray, Hindustan Times, New Delhi

Perseverance rover, the National Aeronautical Space Agency's (Nasa's) newest six wheeled-robot on Mars, is beginning an epic journey across a crater floor for the signs of ancient life on the planet, the agency said on Thursday. Nasa said the rover team will now be deeply engaged with planning navigation routes, drafting instructions to be beamed up, and will even use special 3D glasses to help map the course. However, it said, the rover will take charge of the drive-by itself, using a powerful auto-navigation system.

The enhanced system is called AutoNav and makes 3D maps of the terrain ahead, identifies hazards, and plans a route around any obstacles without additional direction from controllers back on Earth.

Also read: Scientists closer to solving methane mystery on Mars, says Nasa

"We have a capability called ‘thinking while driving'. The rover is thinking about the autonomous drive while its wheels are turning,” said Vandi Verma, a senior engineer, rover planner, and driver at Nasa's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California.

AutoNav is considered to be the key feature in helping the Perseverance rover in its first science campaign on the floor of Jezero Crater. The team members look forward to letting AutoNav “take the wheel" but will intervene when needed.

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The space agency said that the rover might hit a top speed of 393 feet or 120 metres per hour, more than its predecessor, Curiosity, which was equipped with an earlier version of AutoNav that covers about 66 feet or 20 metres 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.”

When Mars was wetter than today, billions of years ago, this crater was a lake and the Perseverance’s destination is a dried-out river delta at the crater’s edge, the agency said. If life ever existed on the red planet, signs of it might be found there, as per the agency. The rover will gather samples over some 9 miles (15km), prep the samples for collection by a future mission that would take it back to Earth for analysis.

The space agency said the delay in radio signal between Earth and Mars makes it difficult for the team as they need to scrutinize satellite images, sometimes donning those 3D glasses to view the Martian surface in the rover’s vicinity. When the team signs off, the instructions are beamed to Mars and the rover executes them the following day.

Perseverance’s wheels were modified as well to help with just how swiftly those plans are executed. Along with being slightly greater in diameter and narrower than Curiosity’s wheels, they each feature 48 treads that look like slightly wavy lines, as opposed to Curiosity’s 24 chevron-pattern treads. The goals were to help with traction as well as durability, Nasa said in a statement.

Perseverance can also employ one of its computers for navigation on the surface and its main computer can devote itself to the other tasks. This Vision Compute Element, or VCE, guided Perseverance to the Martian surface during its entry, descent, and landing in February and is now used full-time to map out the rover's journey.

It also keeps track of its movements using a system called "visual odometry". The rover periodically captures images as it moves, comparing one position to the next to see if it moved the expected distance.

"Jezero is incredible. It’s a rover driver’s paradise. When you put on the 3D glasses, you see so much more undulation in the terrain. Some days I just stare at the images,” Verma said.

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