Looks like 'Opportunity' will be knocking a little less — into obstacles on Mars, that is. Navigation software developed by researchers at Carnegie Mellon and NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) successfully steered the space agency's Mars Rover — Opportunity — through a live test on Feb. 7.
"The early indications suggest that the software is operating as designed," said Tony Stentz, research professor at Carnegie Mellon's Robotics Institute and associate director of the National Robotics Engineering Center. "Much more work and testing remains to be done, but we are thrilled to see our software operating on Mars and we believe it will ultimately expand the capabilities of this and future planetary rovers."
Initially intended to survive only a few months on the Red Planet, Opportunity and its fellow rover, Spirit, are in their fourth year of exploration. However, NASA sacrificed computing power to make the rovers more durable; they have 1 percent of the computing capacity of a typical home computer.
As a result, the rovers got stuck or stalled easily — especially at dead-ends — because they moved on the basis of what they were seeing and couldn't rely on memories they didn't have. Opportunity was stuck in a ripple of sand 1 1/2 feet tall for more than a month.
"If we'd had something that could have avoided driving into that, we would have made faster progress in that area," said Mark Maimone, a Carnegie Mellon alumnus and navigation and vision researcher at JPL.
The new software, called Field D*, creates a more direct path that causes less strain on the vehicle and helps it get out of dead-ends more quickly. Maimone said this is the first time NASA directly took Carnegie Mellon software from a research task into an actual space mission.
"I can't say I was very surprised because we had seen it work so well on Earth," he said.