Tag Archives: opportunity

These tributes to the Opportunity rover will break your heart

On Wednesday, Feb. 13, NASA officially put an end to the 15-year-long Opportunity mission on Mars. Despite their best efforts, engineers were unable to revive the rover which was incapacitated by a huge dust storm covering the planet last year.

Opportunity made invaluable scientific contributions and inspired a whole generation. In the aftermath of the announcement, scores of scientists, fans, space enthusiasts, and artists took to social media to express their grief and solemn goodbyes. Its last message was “My battery is low and it’s getting dark.”

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Opportunity dusty.

Rumors of Opportunity’s death “very premature”, despite three-weeks silence

NASA’s last contact with the Opportunity Rover took place over three weeks ago. Despite this, the agency believes it’s too early to assume the worst case scenario — the rover’s demise.

Opportunity dusty.

Opportunity covered in dust on Mars.
Image credits NASA / JPL.

We’ve been talking a lot about the huge dust storm that’s engulfed Mars of late, and of how NASA’s two rovers — Opportunity and Curiosity — are weathering the event. Out of the two, Curiosity has been served the much sweeter side of the dish: powered by a nuclear reactor and sitting out of the storm’s way, it’s been free to leisurely capture pics of the weather (and itself).

The older and solar-powered Opportunity, however, is stuck in the massive storm. Besides getting pelted by dust that may harm its scientific instruments, the rover is also unable to recharge. Dust blocks so much of the incoming sunlight that Opportunity’s solar panels just can’t create a spark. Bereft of battery charge, the rover stands a real chance of freezing to death on — fittingly– Mars’ Perseverance Valley.

Tough as old (ro)boots

Opportunity has been on duty for some 14 years now. It’s a veteran space explorer that relayed treasure troves of data for researchers back here on Earth. I’m rooting for the bot to weather the storm. By this point, however, it’s been three weeks since it last established contact with NASA — enough to make even the most resolute worry about its fate.

Dr. James Rice, co-investigator and geology team leader on NASA projects including Opportunity, says we shouldn’t assume the worst just yet.

Talking with Space Insider, Dr. Rice explains during its last contact with NASA, Opportunity also sent back a power reading. It showed the rover managed to scrape a meager 22 Wh of energy from its solar panels. For context, the rover managed to collect 645 Wh of energy from its panels just ten days before. This chokehold on energy is the NASA’s main concern at the moment.

However, he adds that the same storm which prevents Opportunity from recharging its batteries may ultimately also be its salvation.

One of the reasons NASA was caught offguard by the storm is that they simply don’t generally form around this time of the Martian Year. It’s currently spring on the Red Planet’s Southern Hemisphere, but dust storms usually form during summer. The only other dust event NASA recorded during the Martian Spring formed in 2001, and even that one came significantly later in the season than the current storm.

Mars storm.

The first indications of a dust storm appeared back on May 30. The team was notified, and put together a 3-day plan to get the rover through the weekend. After the weekend the storm was still going, with atmospheric opacity jumping dramatically from day to day.

Still, at least it’s not winter — so average temperatures aren’t that low on Mars right now. The dust further helps keep Opportunity warmer, as it traps heat around the rover.

“We went from generating a healthy 645 watt-hours on June 1 to an unheard of, life-threatening, low just about one week later. Our last power reading on June 10 was only 22 watt hours the lowest we have ever seen” Dr. Rice explained.

“Our thermal experts think that we will stay above those low critical temperatures because we have a Warm Electronics Box (WEB) that is well insulated. So we are not expecting any thermal damage to the batteries or computer systems. Fortunately for us it is also the Martian Spring and the dust, while hindering our solar power in the day, helps keep us warmer at night,” he added.

The storm has reached 15.8 million square miles (41 million square kilometers) in size this June. It poses a real risk to Opportunity’s wellbeing, but ground control remains optimistic. Mars Exploration Program director Jim Watzin believes that the massive storm may have already peaked — but, considering that it took roughly a month for it to build up, it could take a “substantial” amount of time before it dissipates completely.

“As of our latest Opportunity status report Saturday (June 30) this storm shows no sign of abating anytime soon. We had a chance to conduct an uplink last night at the potential low-power fault window. We sent a real-time activate of a beep as we have done over the past two weeks. We had a negative detection of the beep at the expected time,” Dr Rice added.

“A formal listening strategy is in development for the next several months.”

Among all this, or rather also because of all that’s happening to Opportunity, I can’t help but feel genuine admiration for it as well as the people who helped put it together. Opportunity was first launched in 2004 and along its sister craft Spirit, was supposed to perform a 90-day mission. Spirit kept going until 2010, and Opportunity is still going strong today (and hopefully for longer). That’s a level of dedication I can only dream of.

Based in part on the rover’s rugged track record, Dr. Rice believes that “rumors of Opportunity’s death are very premature at this point.”

Curiosity mars.

Mars’ huge dust storm is now a “global” storm

The dust storm battering Opportunity is now a global storm, NASA reports.

Curiosity Mars.

Curiosity approaching Mars in December 2012.
Image credits NASA / JPL-Caltech.

Mars hasn’t been enjoying the fairest weather as of late. A massive dust storm has engulfed Perserverence Valley, pinning NASA’s Opportunity rover in place; all the dust is blocking out sunlight, preventing the bot from recharging its batteries — so much so that ground control fears it might freeze out, as its dwindling power supply can’t feed the rover’s inbuilt heaters.

According to NASA, the weather is only getting worse. The dust storm has grown in size and is inching in even on the Curiosity rover, half a Mars away from the beleaguered Opportunity. The storm has officially become a “planet-encircling” or “global” dust event.

Mars Stormborn

NASA reports that dust is rapidly and steadily settling down on Curiosity. The quantity of dust settling on the rover has more than doubled over the weekend, they note. The storm’s light-blocking factor, or “tau”, has grown to over 8.0 above Gale Crater (where Curiosity is currently rovering about) — the highest value the bot has ever recorded during its mission. For context, Opportunity is experiencing 11 tau, a value high enough to prevent its instruments from making any accurate measurements.

However, NASA is confident Curiosity will remain unaffected by the grime. Unlike its cousin, it draws power from a nuclear reactor, so the lack of light isn’t really a big issue. Curiosity’s cameras are having a hard time, however, as the lack of light means it has to use long exposure times. NASA is having it point its cameras down at the ground after each use to reduce the amount of dust blowing at its lenses.

However, there’s a silver lining. Because Curiosity can keep functioning in the storm, NASA hopes to use the rover to understand the phenomenon better. One of the main questions they want to answer is why some Martian dust storms remain small and stall before a week has passed, while others grow and grow and last for months.

“We don’t have any good idea,” said Scott D. Guzewich, an atmospheric scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, leading Curiosity’s dust storm investigation.

Together with the craft in orbit around Mars, Curiosity will collect data on the storm to help patch up our understanding.

Mars dust storm.

This animation, pieced together from pictures taken by Curiosity’s Mast Camera, shows the weather darkening over Mars. The rover is currently standing inside Gale Crater, and peeking its camera over its rim. The photos were taken over a few weeks, with the first one snapped before the storm appeared.
Image credits NASA.

The images above were taken roughly 30 kilometers (18.6 miles) away from the storm. The haze is about six to eight times thicker than what’s usual for this time of the Martian year, NASA estimates.

Dust storms on Mars are actually quite commonplace. Surprising for a dusty planet, I know. They’re especially frequent in the southern hemisphere during both spring and summer months (Mars’, not the ones on Earth). These are the months during which Mars is closest to the Sun, and the temperature imbalances in the atmosphere generate winds that mobilize dust grains (this dust is about as fine as talcum powder). Carbon dioxide ice (dry ice) embedded in the planet’s polar ice caps also evaporates during these months, making the atmosphere extra-thick — this increased pressure helps suspend dust in the air. Dust clouds have been spotted up to 60 kilometers (40 miles) high.

However, Martian dust storms don’t usually cause a ruckus. They tend to hang out in a confined area and dissipate within a week. By contrast, the current storm is bigger than North America and Russia combined, according to Guzewich. It’s even more impressive when you consider the size of Mars relative to Earth:

Mars-Earth.

Mars (diameter 6790 kilometers) is only slightly more than half the size of Earth (diameter 12750 kilometers). The image shows the true relative size between the two planets.
Image credits Viking Orbiter Views of Mars, NASA SP-441, p. 14.

The size difference is one of the elements that allows Martian dust storms to grow to such immense sizes. Earth’s gravitational pull is almost double that of Mars, which helps settle the dust. Vegetation also binds the soil, preventing particles from getting airborne, and rain washes whatever gets in the atmosphere back down.

Opportunity.

Opportunity braves the worst sand storm it’s ever faced, might not make it

Shoutout to the Opportunity rover for signaling home amid the worst Martian sandstorm it’s ever faced.

Mars map.

This global map of Mars shows a growing dust storm as of June 6, 2018. The map was produced by the Mars Color Imager (MARCI) camera on NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter spacecraft. The blue dot indicates the approximate location of Opportunity.
Image and caption credits NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS.

On Sunday morning, NASA received a transmission from the Opportunity rover. Usually, that’s not really out of its character — but the bot is currently braving a massive sandstorm on the Red Planet. The rover hailed home to let ground control know it still has enough juice in its battery to maintain communications, according to NASA. Science operations, however, remain suspended in a bid to conserve energy.

Oppy phone home

The transmission was a welcome break for NASA engineers, as the dust storm has been steadily picking up steam in the past few days. The rover is weathering it out in Perseverance Valley, shrouded in perpetual night. NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter first detected the storm on Friday, June 1. The rover team began preparing contingency plans soon afterward.

It’s not the first such storm Opportunity had to face — it braved another in 2007. This event, however, is much worse than the last one. The storm’s atmospheric opacity (how much light it blocks) has been estimated at 10.8 tau as of Sunday morning — the 2007 storm only reached about 5.5 tau. This is roughly equivalent to the incredible smogs we’ve seen in China. Because of this, the bot cannot use its solar panels to recharge.

The storm has grown to over 18 million square kilometers (7 million square miles) since its detection. Such storms aren’t extreme for Mars, but they are infrequent. NASA doesn’t yet fully understand how they form or build in strength, but they seem to be self-reinforcing — a feedback loop that amplifies itself as it grows. Such storms can last up to several months at a time.

This dust blanket could be what makes or breaks Opportunity’s resolve.

Dusty but not yet dead

Opportunity.

You could say it’s an Opportunity to show what you’re made of, little rover!
Image credits NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell Univ./Arizona State Univ.

I say that because the dust is both a boon and a curse for Opportunity as of now. The rover’s main problems are that it cannot recharge (its solar panels are dusted over, and there’s not enough sunlight) and that communication with ground control is spotty at best (radio signals can’t pierce through the storm).

But the dust also hides a silver lining. Data beamed back by the rover shows its internal temperature is roughly stable at about minus 29 degrees Celsius (minus 20 Fahrenheit). The dust storm — which retains heat — seems to be insulating Opportunity from the extreme temperature swings on Mars’ surface. It’s not an ideal temperature by any means, but it’s still not as bad as it could get.

The team’s worst fears right now is that if the rover experiences cold temperatures for too long, it might damage its batteries. This fate befell Spirit, Opportunity’s twin craft in the Mars Exploration Rover mission, in 2010. Engineers plan to use the network to monitor and administer the rover’s energy levels in the following weeks — they need to somehow save as much battery charge as possible while keeping the rover from getting too cold. It has onboard heaters for this purpose, but they drain a lot of energy. One idea the team is considering is activating other equipment to expel energy, which would heat up the bot.

Science operations have been temporarily put on hold for sunnier days. Mission control has requested additional coverage from NASA’s Deep Space Network, a global system of antennas that talks to all the agency’s deep space probes, in an effort to maintain contact with Opportunity.

But I wouldn’t count Opportunity out just yet. It has proved its mettle aplenty in the past. Not only has it gone through dust storms before, but it made it with surprising gusto — the rover has accrued 15 years in the line of duty despite only being intended to last 90 days.

So hang in there little buddy, and don’t let the cold bite your batteries.

NASA rover will investigate liquid-carved gully on Mars

We’ve talked so much about the Curiosity rover, but NASA’s Opportunity rover is also doing work on Mars. Now, the rover will drive down a gully potentially carved by water not so long ago.

This scene from NASA’s Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity shows “Wharton Ridge,” which forms part of the southern wall of “Marathon Valley” on the western rim of Endeavour Crater. Image via NASA/JPL.

Why the gully matters

A gully is a landform commonly found on Earth, typically on hillsides. They look a lot like ditches or small valleys but are metres to tens of metres in depth and width. They’re created by running water (or other fluids, in some cases) eroding sharply into the hillside.

While other fluids can also create gullies, it’s almost always water. So when you see a gully in whatever environment, you can generally assume the presence of running water. Gullies are widespread at mid- to high latitudes on the surface of Mars, and are some of the youngest features observed on that planet, probably forming within the last few 100,000 years – therefore, we can assume the presence of water in the past 100,000 years on Mars and this is pretty exciting. Geologists are still debating whether these gullies indicate rivers, melting snow or simply precipitations, but they do agree that they are a strong indicator of water. Now, for the first time, the Opportunity rover will get the chance to observe one from close range.

This gully is more easy to see (from the Saratov Oblast, Russia). Image by Le Loup Gris.

The gully which Opportunity will study measures two football fields in surface and is situated on the bottom of a crater.

“We are confident this is a fluid-carved gully, and that water was involved,” said Opportunity Principal Investigator Steve Squyres of Cornell University, Ithaca, New York. “Fluid-carved gullies on Mars have been seen from orbit since the 1970s, but none had been examined up close on the surface before. One of the three main objectives of our new mission extension is to investigate this gully. We hope to learn whether the fluid was a debris flow, with lots of rubble lubricated by water, or a flow with mostly water and less other material.”

The rover will not only take pictures but also analyze the chemical make-up of the rocks in the area, for comparison with other rocks found in and around the crater.

“We may find that the sulfate-rich rocks we’ve seen outside the crater are not the same inside,” Squyres said. “We believe these sulfate-rich rocks formed from a water-related process, and water flows downhill. The watery environment deep inside the crater may have been different from outside on the plain — maybe different timing, maybe different chemistry.”

A fantastic opportunity

The Opportunity rover landed on Mars on January 25, 2004, three weeks after its twin Spirit (MER-A) touched down on the other side of the planet. It was supposed to run for 90 days – no more than that – and yet here it is, more than a decade later, still providing valuable information about the Red Planet.

“We have now exceeded the prime-mission duration by a factor of 50,” noted Opportunity Project Manager John Callas of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California. “Milestones like this are reminders of the historic achievements made possible by the dedicated people entrusted to build and operate this national asset for exploring Mars.”

In the two year extended missions that the rover has been carrying out recently, it analyzed the “Marathon Valley” area of Endeavour’s western rim, documenting the geological context of water-related minerals that had been mapped there from orbital observations.

Curiosity day – Curiosity’s size compared to other rovers

Curiosity has landed. The Mars Science Laboratory is set to go, and today, we’ll be writing tons of posts about it: videos, pics, facts, etc – given that it is, without a doubt the most important accomplishment of the year in space exploration.

A picture that gives you an estimate of how big Curiosity really is, compared to two scientists and other rovers. Click the picture for full size. Source

Unlike Spirit and Opportunity, Curiosity doesn’t use solar panels as an energy source, but instead, relies on a much larger thermonuclear electric generator that produces electricity from the heat of plutonium-238’s radioactive decay. Longer-living and more reliable than solar power, the thermonuclear generator can provide Curiosity with power for at least a full year on Mars—687 days on Earth, while also pumping warm fluids through the rover to keep it at the right operating temperature.

A short guide to NASA’s Curiosity equipment and lingo

With the Mars rover Curiosity due to land this weekend, it can be a real drag following NASA’s everyday lingo, which sometimes seems to resemble Martian more than English. Processes have nicknames, parts have nicknames or acronyms, and if you want to know if MSL will nail the EDL for example, you have to learn the talk.

Even NASA’s engineers and researchers admit the language is sometimes tiring and complicated, but necessary.

Curiosity slang

“It’s kind of our own slang,” explained Michael Watkins, mission manager of NASA’s $2.5 billion Mars project set to land on Sunday night. “It’s a shorthand way to talk about these very complicated systems.” He added: “Even folks from other missions have no idea what we’re talking about.”

Let’s start with the basics: inside NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), it’s called MSL – which is short for Mars Science Laboratory. Spacecrafts typically have such names, only to be renamed following contests sponsored by NASA. The previous Mars Rovers, Spirit and Opportunity that landed in 2004 were known as as MER-A and MER-B for the longest time (MER is shorthand for Mars Exploration Rover). Interestingly enough, Curiosity didn’t get this nickname until 2009, when the name was proposed by a sixth-grader from Kansas.

Curiosity, which is about as big as a jeep, contains the most sophisticated instruments to study Mars’ environment – most of which have, of course, sophisticated names. For example, ‘Mastcam’ refers to the pair of 2-megapixel color cameras on the rover’s “head”. “SAM” – short for Sample Analysis at Mars, is the mobile chemistry lab designed mostly to sniff for carbon samples, which would hint at life on Mars. “ChemCam”, as you probably guessed, stands for ‘chemistry’ and ‘camera’, but what you probably didn’t know is that it could also act as a rock zapping laser. As for “Rad” – no surprises there, that’s the radiation detector.

Entry, descent and landing

But before Curiosity can put its sophisticated equipment to work, it must first survive EDL: entry, descent and landing, or how NASA has come to put it: the seven minutes of terror. NASA will receive signals from the shuttle through the DSN, or Deep Space Network, a worldwide network of antenna dishes that communicates with interplanetary spacecraft.

“It takes some time to pick it up,” said Ken Farley, a professor at the California Institute of Technology who is participating on his first space mission.

The dizzying terms take a while to get used to, but as JPL scientist Deborah Bass, who worked on that mission explained, it’s important to talk precisely and concise, but it’s also important not to alienate fans.

“We’re so jazzed about what we do,” Bass said. “We can forget that not everybody has the same fundamental background as we do.”

A field trip to Mars

Geologist John Grotzinger is leading a march up a mountain near Death Valley, probably the most similar environment to Mars we can find here on Earth. He brings staff members (engineers, astrophysicists, etc) to that desert, to smash rocks with geologists’ hammers, and get a general overview of the geological setting of the red planet.

“Until you’re actually staring at a rock outcrop and walking around it, you don’t have the intuition of what this rover’s going to do on Mars,” said Ashwin Vasavada, one of Grotzinger’s two deputies, recalling a 2008 field trip. “He would ask us, ‘If you were the rover, where would you drive? Where would you point your camera? How would we, as a team, explore this particular site, if this was what was in front of us on Mars?’ “

As I’ve already told you, only three days remain until the ‘seven minutes of terror’ – now you should know what this means – and we’ll definitely keep you posted with any events or facts that will take place until the land.

NASA Opportunity Rover finds traces of flowing water on Mars

NASA’s famous rover, Opportunity, seems to have stumbled upon clear evidence that water used to flow on Mars, a long long time ago.

Opportunity was prowling around the Meridiani Planum on Mars, looking at hematite (an iron oxide) when it stumbled upon something which delighted researchers: gypsum. Why is this vein of gypsum so important ? Because this vein could only have been created by flowing water, they claim.

“This tells a slam-dunk story that water flowed through underground fractures in the rock,” says Steve Squyres of Cornell University, lead Opportunity boffin. “This stuff is a fairly pure chemical deposit that formed in place right where we see it. That can’t be said for other gypsum seen on Mars or for other water-related minerals Opportunity has found. It’s not uncommon on Earth, but on Mars, it’s the kind of thing that makes geologists jump out of their chairs.”

The gypsum vein has been named ‘homestake’ by NASA; it is about the size of a human thumb and it protrudes slightly higher than the bedrock it is located in. They believe, after analyzing it with Opportunity’s instruments, that it is mainly made out of hydrated calcium sulphate – gypsum.

However, Opportunity can’t hang on there and analyze the gypsum vein for long; it has to move on towards north-facing slope on the Endeavour Crater in order to align its solar panels properly for the upcoming Martian winter. It’s brother, the Spirit rover, failed to do so in time because it was caught in a crater – and the valiant machine was never heard from again. However, Opportunity surpassed even the most optimistic prognosis, and still continues to provide valuable data to researchers on Earth; now, it has every chance of arriving in a safe place, hibernate, and then go at it again.

NASA’s big rover on its long way to Mars

Following an absolutely perfect launch with no apparent problems whatsoever, NASA’s Curiosity rover has started its long way towards the Red Planet.

Curiosity and Mars

The car-sized rover blasted off Saturday at 10:02 a.m. ET from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station and separated from the rocket right on schedule, 45 minutes later. The pinnacle of technology in spatial rovers, Curiosity is now reducing the 570 million kilometers that separate it from Mars; so far, there’s no reason to worry whatsoever.

“We are in cruise mode,” said MSL project manager Pete Theisinger of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. “Our spacecraft is in excellent health, and it’s on its way to Mars.”

The main purpose of this mission is to determine whether Mars is, or ever was, host to life; don’t let your imagination fly just yet, because NASA isn’t searching for little green men. Some little green bacteria would do just fine, and please everybody for that matter.

Problems and money

This project faced numerous problems since it was first conceived in 2003. At several moments, it was even in peril of being disbanded, but through hard work, NASA’s astronomers and engineers managed to pull it off, even though at a cost much higher than initially anticipated. But these problems and difficulties made today’s successful launch even sweeter.

“Today’s a great day,” Theisinger said. “Very happy guy.”

However, it will take almost a year only to get to the red planet, and the major difficulties start then, so Theisinger can’t relax just yet.

“We all recognize that this is the prologue to the mission — necessary, but not sufficient,” he said. “We all have our work cut out for us in the next eight and a half months.”

Preparing for Mars

Curiosity is scheduled for Mars in August 2012, but the mission has many difficulties and adjustments to pass. For example, numerous navigational corrections will have to be made to ensure a safe and quick arrival on Mars. The team will also perform tests on the 10 highly sophisticated pieces of equipment Curiosity is equipped with.

Furthermore, engineers will have to use this time to prepared for landing on Mars. They’ll stage 10 separate operational readiness tests during the next eight months, estimating and improving their ability to adapt to different situations, more or less pleasant.

“You’re basically just kicking the tires and trying to shake it all out,” Caltech’s John Grotzinger, MSL’s project scientist, told Space.com.

Due to its size, which was necessary for all the instruments, as well as to provide higher mobility and resistance, Curiosity won’t be able to land in a similar fashion to its cousins, Spirit and Opportunity. Researchers had to employ a landing style which is without precedent: they will use a rocket powered sky crane to lower the rover in a daring maneuver.

“Science fiction is now science fact,” said Doug McCuistion, head of NASA’s Mars exploration program. “We’re flying to Mars.”

NASA Curiosity Mars Rover will pave the way for the search for life

After a two year delay, almost a decade of planning, and several budget overruns, NASA’s proudest rover, Curiosity, is finally good to go. The car sized vehicle is twice as big and holds twice as much instruments as its predecessors, including a drill that will allow it to bore deep into the red planet’s rocks.

Curiosity, the center of NASA’s $2.5 billion Mars Science Laboratory mission is set to take off this Saturday, on the 26 November, after a one day delay which was caused by a rocket battery issue. However, all in all, this launch takes place some two years later than initially planed by the MSL – a mistake that increased the mission’s cost by over 50 percent.

But now that the rover is on the launch pad, its issues and problems are slowly slipping into past memories, while most eyes are now set on the future of Curiosity, and most of all, its main mission – to determine if Mars holds, or ever held, life.

“This is a Mars scientist’s dream machine,” Ashwin Vasavada, MSL deputy project scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, Calif., told reporters on Nov. 10. “This rover is not only the most technically capable rover ever sent to another planet, but it’s actually the most capable scientific explorer we’ve ever sent out.”

Plans for the curiosity mission first began in 2003, and since then, researchers have developed and built this monster of a rover that is supposed to take planetary exploration to a whole new level. Weighing at one ton, Curiosity is almost five times heavier than its predecessors, Spirit and Opportunity, which landed on Mars to search for evidence of water in January 2004. However, Curiosity is not at all only about searching for life, but it is the next step in doing so; it also has numerous other scientific purposes, in which it will use the ten pieces of scientific equipment onboard, as well as the drill it has been equipped with.

“We bridge the gap from ‘follow the water’ to seeking the signs of life,” said Doug McCuistion, head of NASA’s Mars exploration program.

NASA Mars Rover gets smarter as it ages

opportunity-mars-roverNASA’s Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity is already in its 7th year on Mars, and over the years it provided some quite useful information; researchers from NASA have been constantly working on ways to improve and optimize it by constantly uploading new software.

Such is the case with the software they applied this winter, which makes it able to make its own choices about whether rocks are worth the effort of gathering additional information or not. Basically, the machine looks at a rock and sees if it meets the required criteria, such as colour or rounded shape.

“It’s a way to get some bonus science,” said Tara Estlin of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.

And she should know, as she’s a rover driver and senior developer of the software system.

“It found exactly the target we would want it to find,” Estlin said. “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. We spent years developing this capability on research rovers in the Mars Yard here at JPL,” she adds. “Six years ago, we never expected that we would get a chance to use it on Opportunity.”

You can get online updates from the Mars Rover here, and more information about AEGIS here