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Mars NASA Science

NASA Gives Mars Rover Extra Smarts 116

Posted by CmdrTaco
from the rover-that-keeps-on-giving dept.
coondoggie writes "NASA today said it upgraded the software controlling its Mars Rover Opportunity to let it make its own decisions about what items like rocks and interesting red planet formations to focus its cameras on. The new system, which NASA uploaded over the past few months, is called Autonomous Exploration for Gathering Increased Science, or AEGIS and it lets Opportunity's computer examine images that the rover takes with its wide-angle navigation camera after a drive, and recognize rocks that meet specified criteria, such as rounded shape or light color. It can then center its narrower-angle panoramic camera on the chosen target and take multiple images through color filters, NASA stated."
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NASA Gives Mars Rover Extra Smarts

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  • Good upgrade but I really gotta question the added 'inferiority complex routine' listed in the release notes that requires the rover to periodically contemplate its ultimate fate [xkcd.com] and update a twitter feed where NASA engineers can either encourage the rover or ridicule it.
  • I for one (Score:5, Funny)

    by c++0xFF (1758032) on Wednesday March 24, 2010 @11:25AM (#31599234)

    ...welcome our newly upgraded martian overlord.

    • Re:AEGIS (Score:4, Funny)

      by Jainith (153344) on Wednesday March 24, 2010 @11:41AM (#31599480) Homepage Journal

      Autonomous Exploration for Gathering Increased Science

      Clearly from the lameness of the title they chose the acronym first and then found a title to fit it. Why anyone would think its appropriate to use the acronym AEGIS for something that doesn't involve defense or a shield I dont know.

      • by Mashdar (876825)

        I think they picked their favorite Diablo II item, then decided it made no sense as a name, so they made it an acronym.

      • by nschubach (922175)

        Duh... obviously it shields the scientists from a bunch of boring rock data.

      • by Tetsujin (103070)

        Autonomous Exploration for Gathering Increased Science

        Clearly from the lameness of the title they chose the acronym first and then found a title to fit it. Why anyone would think its appropriate to use the acronym AEGIS for something that doesn't involve defense or a shield I don't know.

        Look, Mr. Know-it-all, I know you think it's a lame acronym, but if you've got a rover on Mars, and you want it to gather increased science while it's there, and you've worked out some system that lets it do this autonomously for better efficiency, how else are you gonna acronym that? "Increased Science Gathering Autonomous Exploration System" might sound better, but ISGAES isn't a word at all, is it?

  • by 0100010001010011 (652467) on Wednesday March 24, 2010 @11:29AM (#31599284)

    Can anyone give any insight behind how they perform upgrades like this?

    I'm sure we all have a "friend" who has bricked a router doing something. Thankfully my Sheeva Plug has JTAG built in and was able to get to the interface through that.

    Send everything, checksum it and then flash? If something goes wrong (solar wind) is there a very basic firmware that sits and listens? Probably some basic security so the Chinese can't sit there and flood it with fake update requests?

    I'm sure stuff is a lot more fun when pings aren't measured in seconds or minutes.

    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by NEDHead (1651195)
      Geek Squad goes on site, does a full backup, and certifies successful update.
      • Re: (Score:2, Funny)

        by Anonymous Coward

        Please tell me it's a one-way trip.

      • by mcgrew (92797) *

        Even NASA can't afford those incompetent thieves. Last night I was in the bar, and Bill says he took his new multimedia computer back to Best Buy because the sound going from the HDMI to the TV had stopped after a Windows update. They charged him $135.00, which he didn't know was to reinstall the original, perfectly good driver that Microsoft had replaced with one that didn't work! Microsoft did that to me with XP several years ago; I told him NEVER let Windows Update change anything that isn't security rel

        • Re: (Score:1, Funny)

          by Anonymous Coward
          Even NASA can't afford those incompetent thieves. Last night I was in the bar, and Bill says he took his new multimedia computer back to Best Buy because the sound going from the HDMI to the TV had stopped after a Windows update. They charged him $135.00, which he didn't know was to reinstall the original, perfectly good driver that Microsoft had replaced with one that didn't work! Microsoft did that to me with XP several years ago; I told him NEVER let Windows Update change anything that isn't security r
      • by Ruvim (889012)
        It would require too much soda and junk food to get them to that to service that order.
    • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

      by Saishuuheiki (1657565)

      Well, the code they're uploading would be higher-level processing that would just control what it does, not how it does it. Think of it as re-writing the main subroutine, but all the other functions are the same.

      No doubt then there's still error handling to escape the process to return to normal control, and the code-upload area would be separate so even if that part froze, you could overwrite it.

      • While true, I don't think thats quite what he was asking about.

        He means, if they lose a packet, or if it is going to recieve false data from other countries - how does NASA handle it? The latency between here and Mars is high enough that something like TCP is impractical and UDP doesn't really preform for an update, so what protocol are they using to transmit upgrades that has enough security built into it?

        • I know NASA used Reed-Solomon codes for the old Voyager probes. Maybe they're using something more efficient these days, but I'd have to imagine they'd be using error-correcting codes of some sort in whatever custom protocol they've devised. It would be ludicrous to use simple error-detection (necessitating a retransmit) at that latency.

          As for the software itself, the Mars rovers just run VxWorks, right? Once you've got the code uploaded I'd think it'd be as simple* as restarting the process.

          * Yes, I'm si

    • by Mashdar (876825)
      I'm sure they have a rudimentary OS in the rover, which likely remains unchanged. They probably designed the rovers with future updates in mind, and fail-safes for bad flashes due to solar interference, etc. Even if not, NASA presumably designed a very simple earth communications interface to be a separate system from the mechanical controller, so even if the robot gets stuck in a loop or something there is a from-earth reset button.
    • The downside? No travel expenses.

    • by morgauxo (974071)
      I don't know for certain about these two Rovers but if it's like other NASA hardware there are two computers and a very basic system that is supposed to automatically switch to the backup if the primary doesn't respond for a while. Just only update one of the computers at a time and you are ok.
    • by robot256 (1635039) on Wednesday March 24, 2010 @12:21PM (#31600146)

      There are multiple levels of software on the rover. There is a failsafe module to turn everything off if it runs out of power, there is a bootloader OS to handle software crashes and give memory dumps to ground controllers, there is the main OS that runs the vehicle, and then there are scripts the main OS can run. This is one of the scripts.

      Note that the summary says they spent "months" uploading the new software--they did it very meticulously, in chunks, with checksums, and probably read back the whole memory before giving it execute permissions.

      If you were keeping up with the news when they launched the rovers, you might remember that they launched with only the bootloader installed--they actually uploaded the vehicle OS mid-flight before they reached Mars. So something like this isn't a big deal once it's been tested within an inch of its life to get "flight" qualified. The big deal is that they actually got it that far--NASA has historically been very reluctant to give their craft any more autonomy than absolutely necessary. Hopefully we are turning a corner on that.

      • The big deal is that they actually got it that far--NASA has historically been very reluctant to give their craft any more autonomy than absolutely necessary. Hopefully we are turning a corner on that.

        I wouldn't bet on it.

        Remember "I'm sorry Dave, I can't do that"?

        Well, they do.

    • by DrVomact (726065)

      Can anyone give any insight behind how they perform upgrades like this?

      FPGAs, of course. It's a test of SCORPION STARE...or maybe the rover ran into something that had to be handled with extreme dispatch. You can read the details here [goldengryphon.com]. WARNING: I am not responsible for any consequences that may ensue from your accessing this information without sufficient clearance.

      Here's an abstract:

      This document describes progress to date in establishing a defensive network capable of repelling wide-scale incursions by reconfiguring the national closed-circuit television surveillance network as a software-controlled look-to-kill multiheaded basilisk. To prevent accidental premature deployment or deliberate exploitation, the SCORPION STARE software is not actually loaded into the camera firmware. Instead, reprogrammable FPGA chips are integrated into all cameras and can be loaded with SCORPION STARE by authorised MAGINOT BLUE STARS users whenever necessary.

      • Can anyone give any insight behind how they perform upgrades like this?

        FPGAs, of course. It's a test of SCORPION STARE...or maybe the rover ran into something that had to be handled with extreme dispatch. You can read the details here [goldengryphon.com]. WARNING: I am not responsible for any consequences that may ensue from your accessing this information without sufficient clearance.

        Here's an abstract:

        This document describes progress to date in establishing a defensive network capable of repelling wide-scale incursions by reconfiguring the national closed-circuit television surveillance network as a software-controlled look-to-kill multiheaded basilisk. To prevent accidental premature deployment or deliberate exploitation, the SCORPION STARE software is not actually loaded into the camera firmware. Instead, reprogrammable FPGA chips are integrated into all cameras and can be loaded with SCORPION STARE by authorised MAGINOT BLUE STARS users whenever necessary.

        Well done sir. The Concrete Jungle by Charles Stross was an entertaining read. Have you read Scratch Monkey yet?

    • by hey! (33014)

      Question:

      Can anyone give any insight behind how they perform upgrades like this?

      Dr. Zen's Answer: No.

    • by DerekLyons (302214) <(fairwater) (at) (gmail.com)> on Wednesday March 24, 2010 @12:56PM (#31600704) Homepage

      Send everything, checksum it and then flash? If something goes wrong (solar wind) is there a very basic firmware that sits and listens?

      Probably something like:

      1. Verify the hell out of the code on an emulator.
      2. Verify the hell out of the code on the engineering testbed (a rover computer sitting on a table).
      3. Verify the hell out of the code on the engineering development rover (a real rover at JPL running on various simulated terrains).
      4. Send everything, twice. Compare one copy to the other. Checksum each copy received twice. Send the checksums to Earth twice. After receiving the enable and execute codes (which have protections of their own) from Earth, flash it from data storage into firmware. Checksum the firmware twice. After receiving the enable and execute codes from Earth (which have protections of their own), transfer control to the new software (keeping in mind the OS is robust and has various protection features of it's own to prevent apps from bricking the computer and limited protect against trashing the rover).

       
      Seriously, the only people who take validating the code and the authority to execute it more seriously than NASA are the guys at the launch control consoles out in the missile silos and SSBNs.
       
      But they don't beat NASA by much. NASA's unmanned branch does take lessons learned pretty seriously (they've bricked [wikipedia.org] probes before), and when the budget allows [wikipedia.org] does things the right way.

    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by Lumpy (12016)

      They upload the new program, it sits in storage and then is checked, if OK then they schedule a time to do the software install. if the software installs wrong it falls back to the last known good program.

      It's like a motherboard with "crash proof" or "dual bios" but with a lot of checking and waiting and testing.

      That's the 10,000 foot view of how it works, you can find online a more detailed article on how the rovers are designed.

      • by brennz (715237)

        Don't some consumer motherboards have the triple BIOS features now?

        Shoot, even Gigabyte and Asus have passed NASA technology. No wonder the US is in trouble!

    • Probably not wanting people to know they have a sort of networked hubs floating in space, that work like routers all picky backed to one another, so they can send the info to the rovers by way of digital waves of sorts. If everyone knew, they would try to hack into that feed and disrupt the rover's mission. i think keeping it secret is a good thing...

  • by JoshuaZ (1134087) on Wednesday March 24, 2010 @11:31AM (#31599330) Homepage
    I'm amazed at how long Spirit and Opportunity have lasted. Spirit is stuck in place but is still giving us very good data and Opportunity is still kicking and researching well. Aside from some minor problems with the robotic arm, Opportunity is doing fine. These missions have now lasted years when they were expected to last 90 days. These are really amazing pieces of engineering and I hope that NASA is taking a lot of notes about them for how to design future probes. The engineers who made these must be very proud. And now one of their two babies is getting to make decisions for itself! Awww...
    • by beakerMeep (716990) on Wednesday March 24, 2010 @11:39AM (#31599444)
      Just wait, another year or two it will be asking to borrow the car.
    • by quangdog (1002624)
      Not only should they be taking careful notes, they should be making a lot more public noise about the huge success of this project. I fear the general perception amongst Americans is that NASA is a bunch of brainiacs with too much money and little to show for it. Seems like they don't tout their successes well enough.
      • by nschubach (922175)

        I actually haven't got that perception at all... from what I see it's the politicians that feel that way because they can't find benefit from what's going on.

    • by morgauxo (974071)
      Too bad neither has a reprap on board
    • These missions have now lasted years when they were expected to last 90 days.

      They were never expected to last only 90 days - the initial(!) budget did only provide for
      that mission length. It was fully expected to be extended.
      The rovers being able to go for many years is indeed a bonus, proof of great engineering and in part
      due to the unanticipated positive effect of the wind: it cleaned the solar panels instead of depositing dust.

      But to state that "they were only expected to last for 90 days" is plain wrong.

      • by Chris Burke (6130)

        They were never expected to last only 90 days - the initial(!) budget did only provide for
        that mission length. It was fully expected to be extended.

        The AC is right, they really were expected to only last for 90 days, not because they were engineered to fail (obviously to ensure any degree of survival on mars, they had to be engineered as robustly as possible), but because of dust buildup.

        We got lucky that the Martian wind is stronger than we expected. Otherwise the rovers would have died due to lack of pow

  • ...that I hate backronyms.
    • by tomhudson (43916)

      ... you beat me to it.

      Why couldn't we have a vote - we could have renamed it the "COlbert ROver Redundant System for Identification and VErification". - CORROSIVE.

      The the next upgrade could be SUBsystem with VERification Software In Virtual Environments = SUBVERSIVE

      Then NASA (Need Another Seven Astronauts) would get HUGE funding to track multiple SUBERSIVEs.

  • Awesome (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Rival (14861) on Wednesday March 24, 2010 @11:33AM (#31599360) Homepage Journal

    The autonomy of these rovers is already quite impressive, as they can choose parts of their paths based on a braveness variable provided by the engineers.

    This latest enhancement is really interesting, essentially giving them something of a sense of curiosity. I'm not trying to anthropomorphize; the rovers are now allowed to use some sort of Bayesian-like algorithms for determining objects of interest, and examining them without direct input from us. This gives them the potential for returning more scientifically interesting information for the communication cycle.

    Way to go, NASA! You guys rock!

  • ... the rover gets to look at curvy, fair-textured things on the job, and take colored photos of them.

    Would "rovingeyes" be an appropriate tag?

    • Yes, Opportunity has found a bird! The probe has struck crumpet - and she looks pretty good too!

      Do you think we're going to see underwear become even naughtier?

  • It's amazing to me (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Digital Pizza (855175) on Wednesday March 24, 2010 @11:38AM (#31599440)

    ... that they can do a software upgrade of this kind adding a major feature such as this, remotely, without "bricking" it, and without the ability to add more CPU or RAM. Amazing job, guys!

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by mcgrew (92797) *

      that they can do a software upgrade of this kind adding a major feature such as this, remotely, without "bricking" it, and without the ability to add more CPU or RAM.

      What's more amazing to me is the fact that a multibillion dollar software company can't.

  • Spirit and Opportunity have been the most successful NASA project since Armstrong landed on the Moon. What I find curious is that we have not launched a dozen or so more of these capable rovers to the Red Planet.
    • by Em Emalb (452530)

      the most successful NASA project since Armstrong landed on the Moon.

      WHAT! NO WAY! http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-f_DPrSEOEo [youtube.com]

    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by LWATCDR (28044)

      Well yes they are very successful but I think you may be forgetting Voyager which was unbelievably successful and Pioneer 11 and 12 which are still ticking over as they coast out of the Solar System.
      Not to mention Viking, and Hubble.
      All of these projects have been extremely successful projects.

      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        by camperdave (969942)
        Um... Contact was lost with Pioneer 11 in 1995. Pioneer 12 ran out of fuel and crashed into Venus in 1992. Viking 1's antenna pointing software was accidentally overwritten in 1982, and Viking 2's batteries died in 1980 after only three years. Voyager 1 and 2 are still "ticking over" as you say, making them the longest running space probes.

        But is longevity the measure of success? What about capturing the public's imagination? One could argue that despite their much shorter "lifespan", Spirit and Oppor
        • by LWATCDR (28044)

          So Viking ran for 6 years and viking 2 for only 4.
          I would say Voyager was nothing short of mind blowing. They showed us four worlds and I forget how many moons! It was the grand tour of the solar system. Sprit and Opportunity may be the current stars but I can tell you that when Voyager flew by Jupiter they rolled a TV into my classroom and we all watched. Same a few years latter for Saturn..
          So I will put voyager 1 and 2 as the winners.

    • Well one aspect of Mars missions that is not common is success. Only 1 out of every 4 spacecraft sent to Mars even made it to Mars.
    • Another one is going to Mars next year apparently - the Mars Science Laboratory

      You can even put your name on it.

      http://mars.jpl.nasa.gov/msl/mission/overview/index.cfm [nasa.gov]

      • The Mars Science Laboratory is a completely new rover. What I'm talking about is knocking off a dozen copies of the MER rover (which has a design proven to be reliable and capable) and sending them to Mars.
  • AEGIS (Score:4, Funny)

    by PPH (736903) on Wednesday March 24, 2010 @11:47AM (#31599566)

    Another Excuse to Get Itself Stuck

  • by sammy baby (14909) on Wednesday March 24, 2010 @12:05PM (#31599852) Journal

    The new system, which NASA uploaded over the past few months, is called Autonomous Exploration for Gathering Increased Science, or AEGIS and...

    Well, thank god it's gathering increased science. I would hate to think that we were collecting decreased science. Perhaps we could design a program and call it Autonomous System for Scientific and HOlistic Learning and Exploration.

    Then again, we could have called it Rover OS 2.0.

  • by ls671 (1122017) on Wednesday March 24, 2010 @12:08PM (#31599894) Homepage

    It takes 4 to 20 minutes for data to travel between Earth and Mars (each way) depending on the planet positions.

    http://www.pcworld.com/article/137509/coolest_tech_jobs_driving_the_mars_rover.html [pcworld.com]

    Still, Mars is one of the closest planet to Earth. It looks like we will need to find some kind of warp driven data transfer mechanism to network the planets and take full advantage of IPv6 for real time applications. ;-)

    Achieving warp speed for data transfer should be easier than for matter and human beings so I suggest we look at this first. ;-))

    • by morgauxo (974071)
      Quantum association
      • by ls671 (1122017)

        > Quantum association

        I might have had the same idea as you did but unfortunately I can't find any documentation on "Quantum association" and I do not remember how to call that principle I heard about a while ago.

        Basically it works that way: There is some kind of particle that has a sister particle. You can take them apart has far as you want but some action on one of them propagates instantaneously to the sister particle without regards for the distance.

        Do you have any reference on "Quantum association"

        • by sconeu (64226)

          Google for "quantum entanglement" instead.

        • by molo (94384)

          Try quantum entanglement [wikipedia.org]. But it is not able to transfer information faster than light (FTL). A classical channel is required to tell the other side what your findings are if you decohere the state.

          -molo

        • by smaddox (928261)

          Information still can't be transferred faster than the speed of light. Information transfer with Quantum entanglement requires one of the entangled particles to be sent to the destination (never faster than light). Once the particle is at the destination the transmitter can cause the unmoved particle to collapse which will cause the transferred particle to collapse instantaneously, after which the two particles are no longer entangled. This is not FTL since the particle had to get there somehow.

          General Rela

    • by mcgrew (92797) *

      Still, Mars is one of the closest planet to Earth. It looks like we will need to find some kind of warp driven data transfer mechanism to network the planets and take full advantage of IPv6 for real time applications

      Since light can't travel faster than light, that's not very likely, making the advances in robotics incredibly important to unmanned space travel.

      Achieving warp speed for data transfer should be easier than for matter and human beings so I suggest we look at this first

      I've see writeups of theori

      • by rts008 (812749)

        I'm not an astrophysicist, but I think it might be possible someday to use gravity waves for FTL comm. (presented by sci-fi author David Weber in his 'Honorverse' series, and I think also by Steve White in his 'Stars at War' series')

        Use the gravity waves like Morse code.
        Now the problem is the ability to build gravity generators and receivers!

        This idea seems plausible, but who knows....I don't.

    • Can you say "lag frag"?

    • by agrif (960591)

      Relativity basically forbids faster than light anything if we want to retain causality. If you start traveling faster than light, then you can end up with causality reversals, like if on earth removing a support from a bridge causes the bridge to fall, then on a faster than light ship the bridge rising into place causes the support to rise up.

      Something similar happens with FTL communication. An ansible operator tells someone to launch the ship, but in a sufficiently fast frame, the ship launches before the

      • by Tetsujin (103070)

        Something similar happens with FTL communication. An ansible operator tells someone to launch the ship, but in a sufficiently fast frame, the ship launches before the order is given.

        I'm afraid I don't get it... I feel like I generally have a pretty good understanding of relativity but I'm obviously missing a piece of it here.

        The bridge example - isn't this example of "reversed causality" just a matter of observations made by the FTL traveler appearing to occur in reverse because of the normal lightspeed limit on how fast the information can reach them?

        I don't understand the FTL communication example at all... How is causality reversed in that case?

        And if the ship did launch before re

        • by agrif (960591)

          I wish I could whip up some spacetime diagrams to show you, as that's really the clearest way, but I lack the time and hosting. Here [theculture.org] is a similar, though different, example with some pretty well made diagrams.

          What it really boils down to is, with one event outside of your light cone, not everybody agrees on the order of events. You may say that A happens before B, but if A is farther from B in space than in time, there's always some other frame that says B happened before A. This is trouble when we connect

  • 2020 (Score:3, Funny)

    by sohp (22984) <(snewton) (at) (io.com)> on Wednesday March 24, 2010 @12:21PM (#31600152) Homepage

    Newsflash: A mysterious intelligent probe calling itself "O'nity" is threatening Earth. Scientists say that it is demanding access to "interesting rocks and formations"

    • Actually, the definition shifted a bit in all these years, an now it’s interested in interesting rock formations.
      I’s a KISS or KILL situation. ^^

  • Hypotetically speaking: If they broadcast the programs, and I get that transmission and save that software. Is it considering pirating?
  • If it gets stuck again, it can just call NASA and say "I NEED YOUR HALP!".
  • NASA today said it upgraded the software controlling its Mars Rover Opportunity to let it make its own decisions about what items like rocks and interesting red planet formations to focus its cameras on.

    Opportunity (via IM): i spy with my little eye something beginning with the letter r
    JPL: rock

    (sixteen minutes later)

    Opportunity: right! yr turn!
    JPL: ok - letter m

    (sixteen minutes later)

    Opportunity: u have 2 say the whole thing. u lose a turn! i would have guessed mug.
    Opportunity: i spy with my little eye something beginning with the letter s.

    (later that day)

    Opportunity: can we stop for ice cream?
    JPL: no ice cream on mars. we discussed this.

    (sixteen minutes later)

    Opportunity: compute

    • Re: (Score:1, Informative)

      by Anonymous Coward

      wow you suck...

      • by RevWaldo (1186281)
        And wow you swallow whatever your mamma spits out. Definitely living up to the C part of AC.
  • This reminds me of the rover on Planet 51, which was just absolutely nuts for collecting rocks, while seemingly unaware of the intelligent species and the thriving civilization all around it.
    You'll have to excuse me, I have young children.
  • So Nasa now has an Aegis cruiser [fas.org] on another world. The War [wikia.com] of the Worlds can now begin. Clearly the stationary Spirit rover did not qualify for the upgrade.

We will have solar energy as soon as the utility companies solve one technical problem -- how to run a sunbeam through a meter.

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