As smart as the Curiosity rover has been about landing and finding its own way on a distant world, the rover is pretty brainless when it comes to doing the science that it was sent 567 million kilometers to carry out. That has to change if future rover missions are to make discoveries further out in the solar system, scientists say. The change has now begun with the development of a new camera that can do more than just take pictures of alien rocks – it also thinks about what the pictures signify so the rover can decide on its own whether to keep exploring a particular site, or move on.
"We currently have a micromanaging approach to space exploration," said senior researcher Kiri Wagstaff, a computer scientist and geologist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, CA. To help future rover and space missions spend less time waiting for instructions from Earth, Wagstaff and her colleagues developed an advanced two-lens camera, called TextureCam. Although Curiosity and other rovers can already distinguish rocks from other objects in photos they take, they must send images all the way to Earth for scientific analysis of a particular rock. TextureCam can do the analysis by itself.
When TextureCam's stereo cameras snap 3D images, a special processor separate from the rover's main computer analyzes the pictures. By recognizing textures in the photos, the processor distinguishes among sand, rocks and sky. The processor then uses the size and distance to rocks in the picture to determine if any are scientifically important layered rocks. The system's built-in processor avoids straining the rover's busy main processor. When TextureCam spots an interesting rock, it can either upload a high-resolution image back to Earth or send a message to the main processor to move toward the rock and take a sample.
"You do have to provide it with some initial training, just like you would with a human, where you give it example images of what to look for," said Wagstaff. "But once it knows what to look for, it can make the same decisions we currently do on Earth."