Mars robots will think for themselves

Scientists are working on a project to make Mars rovers think for themselves and so speed up the exploration of the planet. The British-led team aims to make future robots autonomous as they trundle around examining rocks and looking for signs of martian life.

A StarTiger rover that will test Seeker works
A StarTiger rover on a Mars mock-up will test Seeker works (Credit: STFC/Stephen Kill)

Rovers equipped with the technology, announced at a space conference today, will be able to steer a safe path, avoiding hazardous boulders or soft sand. And they will be able to explore much more of Mars more quickly because they won’t rely on remote-control commands from drivers back on Earth. 

Seeker is being developed by space scientists at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory at Harwell, Oxfordshire, made up of experts from the UK, France and Canada. It is expected to fly in 2018 on a European mission called ExoMars to find regions that could be home to Martian life. It will dig two meters down into the martian dirt to find any evidence of organisms.

The seven-month brainstorming project to develop the rover’s software was disclosed at a UK space conference today at Harwell, which is now part of the European Space Agency. Project director Kim Ward told Skymania News: “An intelligent rover will be able to cover 2km a day, compared to 2km a year for previous NASA rovers. It will navigate safely over much longer distances, much faster than any has done before.

“It will know which are the interesting rocks to pick out. You have to be able to do that to do to search seriously for life on Mars. So Seeker is a step towards that.” He added: “Based on the success we’ve had so far in just five weeks, I am very confident that we will be successful. It is going very well. The next step will be testng it somewhere like the Atacama Desert in Chile which has very similar terrain to Mars.”

NASA has sent three previous robotic rovers, Sojourner, Spirit and Opportunity, to explore Mars and another, Curiosity, is on its way to land next August. Opportunity is still working, nearly nine years after it landed in January 2003, and is still making great discoveries (see end of story).

But these explorers have all been driven by remote control by scientists back at mission control at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory at Pasadena, California.

Aron Kisdi, a systems engineer on the Seeker team, told Skymania News: “Our robots will be very different to previous rovers, such as NASA’s Spirit and Opportunity. Because humans have been controlling them they have to make decisions and plan ahead what to do. That is a very slow process.

“Seeker will allow our rover to do everything by itself. We can actually properly explore the surface of Mars which has around the same amount of land mass as Earth, despite being smaller, as there are no oceans.”

So will Seeker remove the need to send a manned mission to Mars? Aron says: “I still feel the benefit in sending people to Mars. Robots are really good and they are getting better day by day. But they will nowhere near have the intelligence of humans.”

Seeker is part of an 800,000-euro European Space Agency initiative called StarTiger to tackle various space challenges by getting experts to brainstorm together over specific timeframes. 

The Seeker team includes experts from RAL Space, SciSys, BAe Systems, Roke Manor Research (all from the UK), LAAS (France) and MDA Space & Robotics (Canada). They expect the technology they develop to have potential applications here on Earth, particularly in inhospitable environments.

Seeker is the first StarTiger project hosted at RAL since 2002. That project led to the development of security scanners capable of detecting non-metallic objects. These scanners are now in use at airports worldwide.

In other Mars news, NASA’s surviving rover Opportunity has discovered striking bright veins in the soil that resemble gypsum. They are are being called the best evidence yet that running water once flowed through the region near Endeavour Crater. News of the discovery was given at the American Geophysical Union’s conference in San Francisco.

Paul Sutherland

Paul Sutherland

I have been a professional journalist for nearly 40 years. I write regularly for science magazines including BBC Sky at Night magazine, BBC Focus, Astronomy Now and Popular Astronomy. I have also authored three books on astronomy and contributed to others.
Paul Sutherland

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Paul Sutherland

I have been a professional journalist for nearly 40 years. I write regularly for science magazines including BBC Sky at Night magazine, BBC Focus, Astronomy Now and Popular Astronomy. I have also authored three books on astronomy and contributed to others.

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