Thanks to a newly developed technology called TextureCam, future interplanetary robots may be able to roam around and conduct science all on their own.
The robotic rovers we have on Mars are incredible advanced, but they're since not smart enough to perform their science explorations on their own. Operating them from here takes a lot of time and coordination, though, since Mars and Earth are so far away from each other. Even with signals traveling at the speed of light (roughly 300,000 km/s), the rover teams can be left waiting for up to 42 minutes to receive a reply to one of their commands. No matter what time-saving measure they put into place, this delay puts a lot of 'empty' time in their day that could be better spent with the rover actually conducting science.
However, NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) has just come up with a new technology they call 'TextureCam' which should allow a rover to figure out things all on its own. This special two-lens camera takes 3-D pictures, which the rover's computer processes to figure out the textures of everything in the photograph. The rover can still send the photos back to Earth to get a second opinion, but its analysis will identify everything that's in the photo — ground, rocks and sky — in order for it to make decisions about where to go and what to do. With a little training it can even spot things that scientists on the mission have told it are important for study.
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For a rover to not only be able to drive itself around (like Curiosity was recently taught to do), but also be able to perform experiments on its own, will be very helpful on Mars. Going further out into the solar system, it becomes invaluable. Just hopping one planet further out, say to land a robot on the surface of Jupiter's moon, Europa, and round-trip communications can take up to two hours. The further you go out, the worse it gets.
This new technology promises a vast improvement on what we can get out of these robotic rovers, and an incredible boon to the science that we get from these mission.
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