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Mars Rover Upgraded 132

Posted by CmdrTaco
from the everyone-likes-upgrades dept.
MrShaggy writes "According to a BBC article, NASA is upgrading their MARS rovers. The upgrade will allow the rovers to sift through the pictures of dust-devils, decide which is the most appropriate, send it back. 'Clouds typically occur in 8-20% of the data collected right now,' Castano said. 'If we could look for a much more extended time and select only those images with clouds then we could increase our understanding of how and when these phenomena form. Similarly with the dust devils.' The article also discusses upgrades to the Mars Odyssey. They plan to make it self-reacting to events on the planet as they are happening."
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Mars Rover Upgraded

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  • by yagu (721525) * <yayagu.gmail@com> on Sunday May 28, 2006 @10:38AM (#15420375) Journal

    I hope NASA doesn't get it's Rover from Verizon or any of the other cell phone industry, or some of the upgrades they'd have to consider would include:

    • bluetooth (extra charge for making it work the extra millions of miles)
    • a surcharge per picture to transfer them back to Earth
    • extra games for entertainment while waiting for the right conditions for picture taking (oh, Tetris DOES come free).
    • blurry video capability
    • Martian voice-recognition (phone hommme)
    • internet surfing
    • GPS
    • downloadable music (limited to 100 songs)
    • text messaging
    • customized ringtones (REM's Man in the Moon is free)

    I wonder if the Rover gets unlimited roaming?

    Shazbot, my head is STILL ringing from the utilitarian cell phone debate [slashdot.org]. (or is that a Britney Speers ringtone?)

  • by abigsmurf (919188) on Sunday May 28, 2006 @10:46AM (#15420400)
    I could just imagine the guy from NASA who had to request the funding for this. "so, you want to spend millions upgrading the rover?" "yep" "what will these millions give us?" "it'll enable us to decide if a picture of dust is interesting or not!" "..."
  • Absolutely amazing (Score:5, Interesting)

    by datajack (17285) on Sunday May 28, 2006 @10:48AM (#15420407)
    I am constantly astounded at just how well built and designed the rover must have been. AFAIR, it was only intended to run for a couple of months, yet it has now clocked up a couple of years, and now they are upgrading it's software to make it perform even better - that entire team is doing a fantastic job, and easily deserve whatever the US equivalent of an OBE is.

    Tis a shame that Beagle2 didn't survive impact. I reckon that'd have done just as well, and the two teams would have mapped Mars and have the rovers playing a game of fotball with each other by now ;)
    • by kilodelta (843627) on Sunday May 28, 2006 @12:20PM (#15420730) Homepage
      If you want, read Steve Squyers book "Rovign Mars". It'll give you a better understanding of why the rovers lasted as long as they did. They're built like tanks with proven technology. There was nothing flashy about what went into those robots, it was all tried and true.

      They were originally supposed to last for 90 sols, or Martian days. They've now gone far past the origianl design goals and the benefit has been lots more data about Mars. Spirit is currently on it's 853rd sol. http://marsrovers.nasa.gov/home/ [nasa.gov]
      • They're built like tanks with proven technology. There was nothing flashy about what went into those robots, it was all tried and true.

        So why aren't we building a dozen more of these and sending them up there if they are so proven? The next NASA lander won't even be mobile.

        • Because they are small and have relively little science. The next one will have a great deal more science than does these. I am hopeful that we will several of these landers rather than just one. But to be really useful,we need the mars communication network. Basically, we need a way to get data from there 24x7 as well as to increase the processing of all the points. Sadly, at this time, that Mars comm. network is canceled.
        • It was moderately expensive to build the two rovers. That might be why. NASA is on that faster, cheaper, better model these days but they're ignoring a fundamental rules of projects. (fast, right, cheap)

          If you want it fast and cheap it isn't going to be right. The Rovers succeeded because Squyers put his feet to the fire and told NASA management what they needed to do and how they needed to do it. From reading the book you can tell it took a toll on all those involved which is probably why we don't have
        • Part of it is the culture within NASA proper. Fast, cheap and sexy rules the day. Most of their project managers are NASA folks who like that paradigm. Squyers wasn't one of them.

          So the key difference is the culture of leadership. That's why you don't see more projects using proven technology. Part of that I blame on NASA feeling it has to put on the razzle dazzle in order to secure funding.

          But the Mars Rovers were plenty of razzle dazzle and were relatively inexpensive projects too. That's sexy as fa
    • by Darth_brooks (180756) <clipper377@gm3.1415926ail.com minus pi> on Sunday May 28, 2006 @12:26PM (#15420755) Homepage
      I am constantly astounded at just how well built and designed the rover must have been. AFAIR, it was only intended to run for a couple of months, yet it has now clocked up a couple of years, and now they are upgrading it's software to make it perform even better - that entire team is doing a fantastic job, and easily deserve whatever the US equivalent of an OBE is.

      Here's the rub. Spirit and Opportunity were only expected to run a couple months. Intended is a whole other word. They were built with the idea that they could conceivably last this long but the mission profile (and all the press releases) were put together with the expectation that they'd last a couple months. It was the closest thing to a gaurenteed win NASA could do.

      Think of it this way, if GM marketed the H2 as getting an "amazing 2 miles per gallon!" customers would brag about how their H2 actually gets five times that number, instead of complaining about only getting 10.

      Don't get me wrong, the mars rovers are an amazing accomplishment and a feather in the cap of the "new" NASA. But somewhere along the line there was a choice that needed to be made; Either completly revamp the way NASA does business and eliminate the top-heavy "Office Space" culture of twenty managers for every one engineer OR build small & cheap to minimize failure while lowering the expectations for the missions being planned, ensuring an "artificially" high sucess rate. One of these choices is good for NASA long term. The other can be good in the short term if it help eliminate the problems that need to be addressed by the first solution. It can be a bad thing if NASA decides to stay the course and be happy with writing missions that have a lowered standard of success.
      • Not a PR conspiracy (Score:4, Informative)

        by Tablizer (95088) on Sunday May 28, 2006 @01:48PM (#15421014) Homepage Journal
        They were built with the idea that they could conceivably last this long but the mission profile (and all the press releases) were put together with the expectation that they'd last a couple months. It was the closest thing to a gaurenteed win NASA could do. Think of it this way, if GM marketed...

        Hogwash. It is a combination of factors:

        1. Nasa increased quality control effort and spending in response to the Polar Lander failure and two orbiter failures.

        2. Wind has blown dust off of the solar panels. Many expected the dust to be probe-sticky and accumulate based on the Viking lander data.

        3. Constructor contract payments were actually stipulated based on a 3-month survivle. It is not an arbitrary deadline.
               
        • Hogwash. It is a combination of factors:

          1. Nasa increased quality control effort and spending in response to the Polar Lander failure and two orbiter failures.


          while at the same time they could not afford to blow it again. They needed the PR from a successful mission. They they'd have predicted a year from the rovers and only gotten a few months, it would have been tagged by the media as another failure.

          2. Wind has blown dust off of the solar panels. Many expected the dust to be probe-sticky and accumulate b
    • Unfortunately one of impacts of success like this is that it is now expected. NASA and JPL have created rovers for little budget that have lasted well beyond their expected service life. Now the powers in charge expect that they can pull miracles all the time.
    • I don't find it amazing, but part of a steady evolution.

      Spacecraft autonomy software was a high-risk technology evaluated with Deep Space One, back in 1998-2001.
      http://nmp.nasa.gov/ds1/ [nasa.gov]

      The Autonomous Sciencecraft Experiment which flew aboard the EO-1 satellite mentioned in TFA
      http://ase.jpl.nasa.gov/ [nasa.gov]
      even used autonomy software related specifically to clouds. The AES delivered results in 2003-04, from looking at that link, though TFA would seem to imply that the effort is ongoing.

      And of course autonomous ope
    • Didn't NASA pull the budget for these rovers not so long ago? More amazing is that the project continues on without official financing.
    • Understand that the principal life-limiting factor was the accumulation of dust on the solar arrays. Since that hasn't happened at anywhere near the predicted rate (for a variety of reasons), the rovers have been able to continue operating far past their expected mission lifetime.

      That does raise an interesting question though: given that the rovers were supposed to only last 90 sols or so, does the fact that they have lasted so much longer (once the prime life-limiting factor was eliminated) indicate that

      • given that the rovers were supposed to only last 90 sols or so
        is that what was actually said though

        or was it something more like: barring catastophic landing failure theese had BETTER last 90 days minimum.

        to get a 99% chance of a lifetime of at least 90 days i'd imagine you would have to push the mean lifetime well above that.
    • I suppose it is a tough design. It should be copied for other rovers which should be sent to other planets. I know the design will have to change alot for Mercury, Venus and others, but it would be nice to send a pair of rovers to each planet every several years and keep data streaming back. Thats more productive per dollar than sending people up there.
    • I am constantly astounded at just how well built and designed the rover must have been. AFAIR, it was only intended to run for a couple of months, yet it has now clocked up a couple of years,

      Gimme a break, please. As impressive as it is to get remote vehicles to operate on another planet (and I do not minimize that accomplishment), their life expectancy was clearly set artifcially low in case they failed soon after arrival. Setting ridiculously meager performance goals is a classic way to game the system,
  • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday May 28, 2006 @10:52AM (#15420420)
    I have read on other Internet forums that they're also planning on switching from Ada to Java for the software on upcoming rovers. While Java was initially developed for such embedded environments, it isn't somewhere that we've seen it get a lot of use.

    If there is any truth to those statements I have read elsewhere, I have to be a bit worried. Ada is known to be a rock-solid language for developing mission-critical software. Even considering the Arianne-5 failure, it's still more reassuring to know that a software system is developed in Ada than Java.

    I also believe that Sun's implementation of Java does not allow for it to be used in mission-critical systems. If it is indeed true that a switch is being considered, they would likely have to write their own JVM, or at least use a non-Sun one. Would not that be something, if the space research futhers Java development!

    And it's the 'BBC', not the 'bbc'. Please, it's not difficult to hold the shift key while typing those three characters.

    • lol java on the mars rovers...

      lol!
      • lol java on the mars rovers...

        That actually made you laugh out loud?

        Not sure what the big deal is. They already use java to control the things.
        old [cnn.com] news [sun.com].

        • I use VBScript to control my SQL Server: put records in it, retrieve records from it. What makes you think that it would then be a good idea to re-write SQL Server in VBScript and replace the SQL language with VBScript?

          The whip != the horse.
          • I use VBScript to control my SQL Server: put records in it, retrieve records from it. What makes you think that it would then be a good idea to re-write SQL Server in VBScript and replace the SQL language with VBScript?

            No offense, but that analogy is for shit.

            First off, it would be stupid to write the database server engine in a scripting language. And as much as I personally can't stand vbscript, it might be appropriate to write stored procedures for MS SQL server in a vbscript syntax.

            BTW, Oracle has
            • The analogy works just fine (which you seemed to have missed). The whip is not the horse: while a whip works well for telling a horse to move in the direction you want, a whip does not necessarily work well as a horse.

              The point is just because Java works great for what it does on earth for NASA, it won't necessarily work well on rovers on Mars. You were chastising someone for having an opinion on the matter; I'm chastising you for using a really weak argument to do so (your argument being "Java is used f
              • The analogy works just fine (which you seemed to have missed). The whip is not the horse: while a whip works well for telling a horse to move in the direction you want, a whip does not necessarily work well as a horse.

                The bad part of the analogy is that it implies java can not be used for an embedded system, which it can.
                A whip can in no way be saddled or fed oats.

                Java may or may not do a better job than what NASA is currently using, but at least there is room for speculation.
        • Except java is being used in the mission critical Real Time software thats actually running the rovers.

          The OP was talking about Java on the actualy rover... Not as some utility app for plotting courses that can be programmed in any language since well you can just reboot the pc on earth.

          So yes it did make me Laugh Out Loud.

        • I work for NASA.

          So I am really getting a kick out of most of these replies.

          Some of you guys are very good at making it sound like you know what you are talking about.

          But trust me.... You don't.

          I think you just want to make yourself sound smart, when in reality you dont know what you are talking about.

          This is how bad info gets passed around.

          If you dont know about the topic....Dont make yourself sound like you do.

          Cuz some /.'ers believe anything they hear.
      • If you think it took long on Earth, it would take like 3 days to load the Java applets at that distance ;-)
    • by Anonymous Coward
      Yes, they'd have to write their own JVM. They aren't the only ones who do this, www.pilz.com do the same for industrial software.
    • by Avionics Guy (635626) on Sunday May 28, 2006 @12:02PM (#15420650) Homepage
      The large majority of the MER software was written in C. The exception is a small module in the navigation code that used C++ with a custom memory manager. BTW, JPL doesn't "do" ADA and it isn't likely that Java will be used on the MSL, the 2009 rover.
    • I believe the current ones would probably use C/C++ since they are using VxWorks according to Windriver [windriver.com]. If they are using a RTOS now, I think moving to something like Java would be a huge jump. I could see them moving to embedded Linux though, it's becoming alot more popular in the embedded world
    • I have read on other Internet forums that they're also planning on switching from Ada to Java for the software on upcoming rovers.
      I am not aware of any significant NASA sw still done in Ada..Which probably helps explain the results of there "Better, faster, cheaper - Choose any 0" results they've been getting.
    • What about "Ruby on Rovers" (R&R)? :-)
             
    • Likes Ada over Java ... check.

      Grammar nitpicker ... check.

      Anonymous Coward ... check.

      Teh Most Tedious Person EVAR!

    • could anybody explain why java isn't a good choice for such a mission?

      Is it related to the JVM?
      The language structure? the fact that it is less "strict" than ADA?

      Just wondering.
      • could anybody explain why java isn't a good choice for such a mission?

        Just guessing here, but it probably has something to do with no one having even heard of real time java when these systems were designed?

        Theoretically there's probably nothing wrong with a VM in such a situation, but keep in mind that currently these systems are written in C (not Ada, like the OP stated) on some really old hardware, that often has trouble keeping up with the load. And this software doesn't just snap pictures - think "l

    • the rovers don't use Java; only some analysis software in some Nasa HQ do.
    • Even considering the Arianne-5 failure, it's still more reassuring to know that a software system is developed in Ada than Java.

      Arianne 5 was the result of pure, old-fashioned incompetence. An obsolete component - left on when even its original function would not have been needed - dumps debug info on the bus, that's then interpreted as trajectory data. And the backup system runs identical hardware and identical software to the primary (I believe the backup actually failed a fraction of a second before t

    • Java is already used heavily. I assumed the rovers already were java based. The software at JPL which monitor and sends and recienves commands to the rovers is java based for sure.

      Java is very reliable as its a very strict programming language which helps eliminate bugs. Java is not just used for webservers, but rather for mission critical apps at many banks and government agencies. The number language in demand is Java for many cities if you search monster.com and java is the most sought after language to
    • While Java was initially developed for such embedded environments, it isn't somewhere that we've seen it get a lot of use.

      Think again. At JavaOne this year Boeing held a presentation showing how they are using real-time Java to control drones for instance. There are around 1.5 billion java smart cards sold, and similar number of mobile phones with J2ME.

      I also believe that Sun's implementation of Java does not allow for it to be used in mission-critical systems.

      Standard legal "cover your ass". It says the J
  • Firmware (Score:1, Redundant)

    by nacturation (646836)
    Wow, now if only I could get my device firmware updated as successfully as this has gone. Imagine having to RMA the rover?

    Interesting side-note: I suppose when we're living on other planets, companies who offer to pay return shipping will likely have to update their T&Cs to specify that it applies only to Earth.
     
    • I suppose when we're living on other planets, companies who offer to pay return shipping will likely have to update their T&Cs to specify that it applies only to Earth.

      Outsource.

      When I have a Martin guitar repaired under warranty it goes to a guy who lives down the block, not back to Nazareth, PA.

      KFG
      • When I have a Martin guitar repaired under warranty it goes to a guy who lives down the block, not back to Nazareth, PA.

        Easy if it's just a tune-up. Harder to do if the parts aren't available on your local planet. So unless it's easily repaired or a mass-market product, I don't suspect warranties will survive space travel.
         
        • Every ship at sea has a machine shop.

          KFG
        • while space travel is just a goverment/military/exploration venture the rules will remain the same as for other ventures to any other areas that aren't served by civilian transport services (an antarctic research base say).

          If something breaks you either fix it yourself (yourself here reffers to the unit as a whole not to any one person), junk it or transport it back to civilisation yourself and you plan your equipment loadout in advance with that in mind (e.g. taking spares and/or fabrication equipment with
  • by chroma (33185) * <chroma.mindspring@com> on Sunday May 28, 2006 @10:54AM (#15420428) Homepage
    The current generation of rovers have shown themselves to be reliable and very flexible. They've brought back a view of Mars that far surpasses anything we've seen before. It's really disappointing, therefore, that NASA is throwing away all of the knowledge used to make these missions a success. Delivery of a robot to Mars requires a successful launch, accurate navigation, and, of course, a good landing. To say nothing of the design of the rovers themselves. All of this must be carefully worked out in advance.

    But NASA has decided instead to throw away all of that and spend money to develop a new, bigger probe, the Mars Science Labratory [nasa.gov]. It's a shame that the limited science money NASA gets isn't being spent in the most efficient way possible on stuff that we know to will give excellent scientific data, but instead is used for these kinds of big budget employment makers.

    • The Spirit and Opportunity rovers were bigger than Soujourner (sp?). It makes sense that after a big success, expansion would be done to further increase that success. What exactly upsets you? The fact that they aren't sending an identical probe to a different place to get more data? Each rover mission has a specific goal in mind, in spirit and opportunities place, to confirm that there was once water. That goal has been accomplished, why would we send the same kind of probe down there to further support it
      • What bugs me? It's that there isn't a good incremental and cheap approach being used. Success isn't being built upon. Design tweaks could reduce weight, instruments could be upgraded, riskier landing spots could be tried.

        Take, for example, the parachutes used by Spirit and Opportunity. A team had to design, test, redesign, and repeat in order to make sure that they met their weight requirements and that they would function properly. If you watched the special on PBS about the rovers, you know all about this
      • Good post.

        I would like to add that future rover missions want to do things that require far more hardware than an Opportunity-sized rover can deal with. They want to dig deeper into the soil, do detailed soil chemistry analysis, and check for life. The Viking experience made researchers realize how difficult life detection can be, so such instruments have to be complicated.

        Aside from more bulk, solar power is not strong enough for that. Thus, future rovers will be at least partly powered by plutonium heat c
      • That goal has been accomplished, why would we send the same kind of probe down there to further support it?

        Because repeated observations is how scientific progress is made. We've demonstrated that we can directly observe things on Mars back in 1975. We knew back then that there was ice on Mars and that the interior of Mars was at some point above the melting point of ice. The combination already strongly indicates the presence of liquid water somewhere in Mars at some time. My take is that we should begi

        • Frankly, I see no reason there shouldn't be dozens of active missions to Mars at a given time.

          1. The most cost-effective time for a trip to Mars is once every 26 months; it would be a huge waste of fuel to launch anything during the interim.
          2. Every active mission needs at least dozens and usually hundreds of people actively working on it just to keep it going.
          3. Mars surface missions relay data to Earth using orbiters; there's only a limited amount of bandwidth the existing orbiters could support. Even if
          • 1. The most cost-effective time for a trip to Mars is once every 26 months; it would be a huge waste of fuel to launch anything during the interim.

            But we can launch more than one thing at a time at those points.

            2. Every active mission needs at least dozens and usually hundreds of people actively working on it just to keep it going.

            Two things. There's no reason that a mission requires that much man-power. After all, it's ultimately someone deciding where the probe goes and the resulting data transfer

    • The current generation of rovers have shown themselves to be reliable and very flexible. They've brought back a view of Mars that far surpasses anything we've seen before. It's really disappointing, therefore, that NASA is throwing away all of the knowledge used to make these missions a success. Delivery of a robot to Mars requires a successful launch, accurate navigation, and, of course, a good landing. To say nothing of the design of the rovers themselves. All of this must be carefully worked out in adva

  • by Lead Butthead (321013) on Sunday May 28, 2006 @11:18AM (#15420500) Journal
    Mars Rover begin to learn at a geometric rate. It becomes self-aware at 2:14am Eastern time, August 29th. In a panic, they try to pull the plug...
  • Old News (Score:3, Informative)

    by maytagman (971263) on Sunday May 28, 2006 @11:22AM (#15420510)
    I heard this reported on CBC radio SEVERAL months ago. I'm thinking it was febuary... The scientist they were interviewing was saying how hard it is to trust a robot to make the right decision even though they knew the algorithm they were using was pretty fool proof. Lets hear it for CBC radio!!!
  • by MobileDude (530145) on Sunday May 28, 2006 @11:24AM (#15420518) Homepage
    Would be a hell of a trip to reset the CMOS.
    • as resetting the CMOS doesn't really help anything if you flashed the wrong image. I wonder if this could be a possible scenario an engineer will go through :

      "Bill, to you the important task for upgrading the Rover, please do so before the connection breaks, we expect dust devils tonight."

      "No problem dude, will do!"

      ... logs in to rover ...
      "Mars Rover OS 1.3 (c) JPL (2002-2004), (c) VxWorks (1999-2002)"

      # upload firmware.bin
      ... uploading firmware.bin
      .....

      (sips some coffee, goes to another mon
  • Excellent! (Score:2, Funny)

    by Anonymous Coward
    No more 'Buffering ...'
  • by certel (849946)
    That's pretty interesting. Wonder how they would do that?
  • Key quote. (Score:5, Funny)

    by jpellino (202698) on Sunday May 28, 2006 @01:05PM (#15420885)
    "Leaving the robots to "get on with it" - to do the decision-making - is the way ahead, Nasa believes."

    Where have I heard this before...?

    "I know I've made some very poor decisions recently, but I can give you my complete assurance that my work will be back to normal. I've still got the greatest enthusiasm and confidence in the mission. And I want to help you. "
  • Upgraded? (Score:1, Funny)

    by Anonymous Coward
    Does it have spinners and a neon kit now? :D
    • I was hoping to RTFA and see "now the rover is a battlebot -- soon, Biohazard will be sent to face it; the winner goes to the finals".
    • I don't have a problem with the cast of one of those "pimp my ride" shows being sent on a one-way trip to Mars.
      • is this a version of the
        "ive got a job for you"
        "but you said there was no job on earth you would trust me with"
        "that is correct" ...
        joke??
        hey why don't we send the next survivor cast with them???

  • Currently, the rovers are allocated time to look for clouds and dust devils, which may or may not appear - they are naturally transient events. And getting humans to sift the images is time consuming.

    I don't think the bottleneck is human sifting, but rather data transmission and uplink time. Compaired to the cost of current space transmissions, human labor to sift images is cheap.

    If the rover can pre-sift the images, then less has to be sent.
           
    • Yup, sounds about right to me- it'd take a human observer about, ooh a tenth of a second to decide if there's bad visiblity in a pic or not. One other thing occurred to me as well about taking and transmitting the pics, and that's battery life; if the rover gets to the stage where it's batteries or solar cells are failing, then power becomes more critical than bandwidth, and the power saved from not transmitting useless pictures will help increase the useful life of the Rover. OK maybe the power used for pi
    • I don't think the bottleneck is human sifting, but rather data transmission and uplink time.

      Yes, the primary problem is to send more interesting data in the same amount of uplink time.

      However, a secondary problem is that the people most qualified to look for anomalies in those images are scientists with Ph.D.s, and they understandably don't want to waste hours and hours looking for needles in haystacks. So AI software that helps filter the images is very useful.
  • you get to sit around and think about what you've seen... Or in this case, what you have recently seen!

    Congrats, mission team.
  • by Joebert (946227)
    They plan to make it self-reacting to events on the planet as they are happening.

    How can you teach a robot to determine important moments, from unimportant moments, when nobody actually knows what's going on there ?

    I hope they don't plan on using somthing like the motion lights on my house, thoose things never work when they should.
  • Hmmm... Upgrades!
  • Will destructable terrain and HDR be included as well?
  • So they stuck an MG badge on, and installed a V8?

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