NASA’s Perseverance rover, equipped with an advanced computer pilot known as AutoNav, has been making significant strides on the Martian surface, setting new speed records since its landing in February 2021.
In a journey from June 26 to July 31, Perseverance covered a distance of 2,490 feet (759 meters) through an area dubbed Snowdrift Peak. Remarkably, this feat was achieved in about a third of the time it would have taken other NASA Mars rovers, according to an agency press release.
Tyler Del Sesto, deputy rover planner lead for Perseverance at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in California, highlighted the challenges of this terrain. “It was much denser than anything Perseverance has encountered before—just absolutely littered with these big rocks,” said Del Sesto. Instead of taking a detour that would have consumed weeks, the team “just dove right in.”
The capabilities of the AutoNav system, which aids the rover in reducing driving time between areas of scientific interest, were detailed in a paper published in the July issue of the journal Science Robotics. Del Sesto, who has worked on the software for Perseverance’s AutoNav for seven years, noted that the rover’s journey through Snowdrift Peak was approximately 12 sols, or Martian days, faster than what the Curiosity rover would’ve achieved.
“Our rover is the perfect example of the old adage ‘two brains are better than one,’” Vandi Verma, lead author of the paper and the mission’s chief engineer for robotic operations at JPL, said in the press release. “Perseverance is the first rover that has two computer brains working together, allowing it to make decisions on the fly.”
This dual-brain capability has enabled Perseverance to set other records, including a single-day drive distance of 1,140.7 feet (347.7 meters) and the longest drive without humans in the mix at 2,296.2 feet (699.9 meters).
As the Perseverance rover continues its exploration, it faces new challenges. On September 7, the rover began its fourth science campaign, navigating the “Mandu Wall,” a ridgeline rich in carbonates that could provide insights into the Red Planet’s environmental history and potential signs of ancient microbial life. One team member highlighted the evolving nature of rover exploration, noting that the days of merely observing Martian features for future reference are over.
Indeed, Mars rovers have come a long way since 1997. From the microwave oven-sized Sojourner, which had to stop every 5.1 inches (13 centimeters), to the golf cart-sized Spirit and Opportunity, which paused every 1.6 feet (0.5 meters), the evolution has been obvious and steady. Curiosity, which landed in 2012, received a software upgrade to aid its driving decisions, but Perseverance’s advanced technology, including faster cameras and a dedicated computer for image processing, sets it apart.
Del Sesto paid homage to the legacy of past rovers, saying: “Of course, everybody on the team knows we only got to this level of performance by standing on the shoulders of giants. Sojourner, Spirit, Opportunity, and Curiosity were the trailblazers.”
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