Tech

NASA’s new rovers will be a fleet of mobile robots that work together

Each rover will carry a small computer, wireless radio, and a stereo camera for capturing 3D images. While none of them alone can collect as much data as the larger one could, deploying multiple at once can reduce the risk of a mission catastrophic failure.

CADRE was developed at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California and tested by researchers from Lunar Operations Simulation Laboratory (SLOPE) at NASA’s Glenn Research Center in Cleveland. SLOPE is the same lab that tested VIPER (Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover), a mobile robot that will launch in November 2023 and search for frozen water on the moon.

One of the goals of the project is to prevent a repeat of what happened to NASA’s Spirit rover in 2009 – a nightmare for space exploration enthusiasts.

One of two twin Mars rovers sent to opposite sides of Mars in 2004, Spirit has provided some of the most detailed images of the Red Planet that humanity has ever seen. But five years after the start of the mission, Spirit’s wheels got stuck in the soft Martian sand. NASA engineers worked for eight months to get it moving, but after several unsuccessful attempts, Spirit was eventually transferred to serve as a stationary science platform.

To keep the new rovers from getting stuck, SLOPE simulates the unique landscapes they must navigate, from the powdery soil of the Moon to the rocky surface of Mars. The researchers are using motion capture technology, which includes a pair of stereo cameras, to create thousands of 3D images used to measure the speed of each rover and the movement of its tires, helping them predict soil response.

“This system allows us to really characterize traction performance,” says Schepelmann. “We can basically measure how each part of the robot moves.”

Wolfgang Fink, an assistant professor of electrical and computer science at the University of Arizona who studies autonomous research systems, says that while rovers like Curiosity and Perseverance had limited autonomy, moving towards full autonomy through projects like CADRE will allow humanity to explore areas that we never have. we cannot otherwise achieve.

On average, communication between the Earth and the Moon takes only a few seconds, but this time is stretched to minutes if the message is to be sent from Mars. As far away as Titan, Saturn’s largest moon, communications between the mission control center and any lander or rover will take hours, meaning any unforeseen hitch could jeopardize the entire mission. The further from home we want to explore, the more autonomy will matter.


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