The unexpected longevity of NASA's twin rovers Spirit and Opportunity is giving NASA a chance to field-test on Mars some new capabilities useful both to these missions and future rovers. Both rovers begin their fourth year on Mars this month. They are currently testing four new skills included in revised flight software uploaded to their onboard computers.

One of the new capabilities enables spacecraft to examine images and recognize certain types of features. Another new feature, called "visual target tracking," enables a rover to keep recognizing a designated landscape feature as the rover moves. This feature can be combined with a third -- autonomy in calculating where it is safe to reach out with the contact tools on the rover's robotic arm. The new software also improves the autonomy of each rover for navigating away from hazards by building better maps of their surroundings.

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