All About Space

NASA’s Perseveran­ce rover takes its own wheel for Mars drives

Auto-navigation on the Red Planet: “It’s a rover driver’s paradise”

- Reported by Meghan Bartels

NASA’s Perseveran­ce rover is picking up the pace on Mars thanks to technology that helps the robot avoid running into trouble on its otherworld­ly drives. That technology, called AutoNav, is a navigation system that maps terrain and plans routes without the rover needing to rely as heavily on guidance from Earth. AutoNav is four or five times more powerful than equivalent technology tested on NASA’s previous Mars rover, Curiosity, which means Perseveran­ce will be able to take more direct routes and travel faster, in turn allowing the rover to do more science in the same amount of time.

“We’re going to be able to get to places the scientists want to go much more quickly,” Jennifer Trosper, project manager for the rover at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in California, said. “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.”

The AutoNav process doesn’t cut out human drivers entirely – it just increases the rover’s autonomy where possible. “We have a capability called ‘thinking while driving’,” said Vandi Verma, a senior engineer, rover planner and driver at JPL. “The rover is thinking about the autonomous drive while its wheels are turning.”

Other features on the new rover will also help increase speed. Perseveran­ce’s wheels have a larger diameter, narrower width and wavier tread pattern which mission engineers designed to increase traction and durability on Mars. Perseveran­ce also carries an entirely separate computer devoted to navigation, and the new rover’s belly clearance is higher, making a wider variety of terrain safe for exploring.

All told, the improvemen­ts implemente­d for Perseveran­ce mean the rover could travel as fast as 120 metres (393 feet) per hour – just over the length of a football field – compared to Curiosity’s speed of 20 metres (66 feet) per hour. That would put Perseveran­ce’s top speed at about 0.12 kilometres (0.07 miles) per hour. Increasing rover speed for Perseveran­ce is important because mission scientists hope to direct the rover to cover a total of 15 kilometres (nine miles) over the course of its mission.

That’s exciting not just for scientists, but also for the humans helping Perseveran­ce navigate, who get to enjoy more of the Red Planet’s scenery in Jezero crater. “Jezero is incredible,” Verma said. “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.”

 ??  ?? Right: Perseveran­ce is faster and easier to control than past rovers
Right: Perseveran­ce is faster and easier to control than past rovers

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