NASA TextureCam Will Enable Rovers To Analyze Space Objects On Their Own, Speeding Up Exploration

By Josh Lieberman on September 10, 2013 12:34 PM EDT

mars curiosity rover
The TextureCam will allow rovers like the Curiosity (above) to analyze objects quickly, giving rovers more autonomy to choose the path they take on space surfaces. (Photo: NASA)

A new camera developed by scientists at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., may allow space rovers to traverse celestial bodies at a faster pace by giving rovers greater autonomy. The TextureCam aims to enable a rover itself to determine whether objects in its path are worth exploring, a process that currently involves a rover capturing images and beaming it down to NASA to analyze. That's a slow process, and if a rover were able to use TextureCam to make its own determinations about whether to keep exploring or move on, it would be far more efficient.

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Take the case of the Curiosity Rover, which is currently exploring the surface of Mars. It takes 20 minutes for data from Mars to arrive on Earth for NASA scientists to see -- a speed of 0.012 megabits per second, which is 250 times slower than a 3G cellphone's transfer rate. NASA then analyzes whatever Curiosity is looking at to determine whether the rover should explore it further, then sends back its own data, which once again takes 20 minutes to reach Mars. And the data delay would be even greater if a rover explored Jupiter, with the data speed slowing to 45 minutes each way.  

"We currently have a micromanaging approach to space exploration," said Kiri Wagstaff, a computer scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. "While this suffices for our rovers on Mars, it works less and less well the further you get from Earth. If you want to get ambitious and go to Europa and asteroids and comets, you need more and more autonomy to even make that feasible."

As it is now, NASA sends a sort of schedule to the Curiosity rover at the beginning of each Martian day. NASA tells Curiosity to do things like move to a certain area, take a photo and dig up some soil, for example. But with the TextureCam, the rover wouldn't be as beholden to this set of instructions sent to it each morning.  

The TextureCam works by taking images and then analyzing them. The TextureCam's two lenses create a 3D image, which is then processed by an onboard computer. The computer analyzes the texture of objects in the 3D images to see if they seem interesting. If it finds a boring pile of sand, it tells the rover to move on. If it comes across something interesting, like layered rock, it may decide to go over to the layered rock and collect samples.

TextureCam will also help the rover decide which images to send back to NASA. A rover can only send back so much data given those slow transfer speeds, and data transfer uses up a lot of the rover's power.  

"If the rover itself could prioritize what's scientifically important, it would suddenly have the capability to take more images than it knows it can send back. That goes hand in hand with its ability to discover new things that weren't anticipated," said Wagstaff.

The TextureCam was recently successful in testing in the Mojave Desert in Southern California. The rocky desert was used to serve as a stand-in for the Martian surface. Wagstaff and her colleagues have published a TextureCam report titled "Smart, texture-sensitive instrument classification for in situ rock and layer analysis" in the latest issue of Geophysical Research Letters.

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