NASA’s newest six-wheeled robot on Mars, the Perseverance rover, is beginning an epic journey across a crater floor seeking signs of ancient life, the US space agency announced on Thursday. A NASA release said the rover team is deeply engaged with planning navigation routes, drafting instructions to be beamed up, even donning special 3D glasses to help map their course.
But increasingly, the rover will take charge of the drive-by itself, using a powerful auto-navigation system. Called AutoNav, this enhanced system makes 3D maps of the terrain ahead, identifies hazards, and plans a route around any obstacles without additional direction from controllers back on Earth. “We have a capability called ‘thinking while driving,’” said Vandi Verma, a senior engineer, rover planner, and driver at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California.
“The rover is thinking about the autonomous drive while its wheels are turning.” That capability, combined with other improvements, might enable Perseverance to hit a top speed of 393 feet (120 meters) per hour.