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Automation and Mars Exploration Rovers

The Mars Exploration Rover, MER was a project launched by NASA in 1997 with the sole purpose of exploring the Martian surface and signs of microbial life and water. The first MER was launched in 1997 and managed to achieve all the goals. Four other MER projects were launched afterwards including the Sojourner, Spirit, Curiosity and the latest, Perseverance. Perseverance was launched in February 2021 and is under operation. The early MER’s including Curiosity focused on observing the Martian surface and transmitting the data back to the Earth for prediction of atmosphere and the surface. However, Perseverance was launched to look for any signs of water in the delta formed in Jezero Crater. It is believed that Jezero lake and a river met at the delta formed in Jezero lake. This mission is underway. NASA’s scientists had implemented a lot of automation and technology to ensure minimal human interference on the Martian surface and collect samples of minerals, rocks and microorganisms to send back to Earth for evaluation. The operation mode of MERs is based on autonomy software which implements decisions based on the data acquired from sensors and executes them accordingly.

MER’s Launched

  • Sojourner
  • Spirit and Opportunity
  • Curiosity
  • Perseverance

Technology Used in MER:

Design and technology of Mars rovers is discussed in the sections below:

Sojourner

It was the first Mars Rover to complete a successful mission. It was designed by NASA’S JPL or Jet propulsion lab. It was launched in 1997. Its mission was to be active for seven sols but was extended to 30 sols. However, this lasted for 83 sols or 85 Earth days. It was then included in the Mars pathfinder mission. The design of the new rovers is same as the design implemented Sojourner. NASA has designed the rover based on automation and AI. This is to ensure that human interference is not involved, and the rover is commanded using the signals and AI from the Earth. Key features of NASA’s first MER are given below:

Mars Sojourner rover” by adminspotter is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

Power System:

  • The Sojourner had a solar panel and a Lithium Thionyl Chloride non-rechargeable battery that can provide 150 watts-hour.
  • Since the batteries could be depleted, the operation was mostly conducted during daytime.
  • The rover also had 2.4 sq ft of solar cells that could produce 15 watts.

Wheels and Motion:

  • The Sojourner has six wheels and the suspension system used is known as the Rocker-Bogie system.
  • The wheels and the suspension system were designed by NASA’s JPL and are still used in the MERs.
  • The Rocker-Bogie is also used in military vehicles and semi-trailer trucks.

Processor:

  • The CPU embedded in the Sojourner was the 80C85 Microcontroller chip. This chip was also used in appliances.
  • The computer used in the lander had an IBM RISC 6000 chip embedded in it with a RAD6000 CPU.
  • The rover was embedded with control algorithms for navigation and capturing samples of Martian surfaces.

Others:

The Sojourner had cameras, laser, spectrometer, gyroscope, accelerometers, and a warm electronics box. It had a mast with an antenna on it for communication purposes. The antenna is a high gain X-band antenna that can send data of 5 kb/s to the 230ft long Deep Space Network.

Spirit:

Power System:

The Spirit rover has solar panels that can generate 140 watts for four hours per sol (Martian day) and a Lithium Thionyl Chloride non-rechargeable battery to provide power during night.

Wheels and Motion:

  • The Spirit has six wheels and the suspension system known as the Rocker-Bogie suspension system is embedded in it.
  • This system can tackle the tilt of up to 30 degrees and maintain its motion.
  • The wheels and the suspension system were designed by NASA’s JPL and are still used in the MERs.
  • The Rocker-Bogie is also used in military vehicles and semi-trailer trucks.

Processor:

  • The CPU embedded in the Spirit was the Rad6000 which had 128Mb of RAM.
  • It also had 3Mb of EEPROM and 256Mb of flash memory.
  • The rover was embedded with control algorithms for navigation and capturing samples of Martian surfaces.

Others:

The Spirit rover had the following equipment mounted on it:

  • High gain antenna to send high frequency radio waves to Deep Space Network.
  • Low gain antenna to send low frequency radio waves to Deep Space Network.
On the mast:
  • PanCams
  • NavCams
  • HazCams
  • Mini-TES (Miniature Thermal Emission Spectrometer)
On the robotic arm:
  • Mossbauer Spectroscope or MIMOS II
  • Alpha particle X-ray spectrometer
  • Rock Abrasion tool RAT

Curiosity:

It was launched by NASA in 2011. It was sent to the Gale crater of Mars for the inspection and analysis of the geology, climate, traces of any microbial life and chances of inhabitability on Martian surface. It was equipped with new sensor and control technology, advanced automation, and Artificial Intelligence. Automation is ensured through the PLEXIL programming language which was designed by NASA for robotics and automation.

Power System:

The Curiosity rover is powered by RTG (radioisotope thermoelectric generator). The radioactive isotope used is Plutonium-238. Power of 9 MJ can be generated per day, enabling the rover to perform its operation day and night.

Wheels and Motion:

  • The Curiosity has six wheels and the suspension system used is known as the Rocker-Bogie suspension system is embedded in it.
  • The diameter of the wheels is 20 inches which is greater than the previous models.
  • The wheels have specific pattern on them which is usually a morse code for JPL.
  • This system can tackle the tilt of up to 50 degrees, but the sensors and the algorithms restrict it to 30 degrees and maintain its motion.
  • The maximum speed of the rover is 200 m which is acquired through automatic navigation.
  • The wheels and the suspension system were designed by NASA’s JPL and are still used in the MERs.
  • The Rocker-Bogie is also used in military vehicles and semi-trailer trucks.

Processor:

  • It has two on-board computers, known as Rover Compute element or RCE
  • The CPU embedded in the Curiosity computers is RAD750.
  • These computers have 256kb of EEPROM, 256Mb of dynamic RAM or DRAM and 2Gb of flash memory.
  • There are two SPARC processors and two PowerPC processors.
  • The rover computers are embedded with control algorithms for navigation and capturing samples of Martian surfaces.

Others:

On the robotic arm:
  • Alpha particle X-ray spectrometer
  • Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI)
On the mast:
  • ChemCam
  • MastCam
  • Rover Environment Monitoring System (REMS)
  • HazCams
  • NavCams
On the body:
  • Dust Removal Tool (DRT)
  • Radiation Assessment Detector
  •  RTG
  • Mars Descent Imager (MARDI)

Perserverance:

It was launched by NASA in 2021. It was sent to the Jezero crater of Mars for the inspection and analysis of the climate, traces of any microbial life and water and chances of inhabitability on Martian surface. Its design is similar to the design of Curiosity rover with slight difference in physical structure and the algorithms embedded. Like the Curiosity MER, automation is ensured through the PLEXIL programming language which was designed by NASA for robotics and automation.

Power System:

The Perseverance rover is powered by RTG (radioisotope thermoelectric generator). The radioactive isotope used is Plutonium-238. Power of 9 MJ can be generated per day, enabling the rover to perform its operation day and night.

Wheels and Motion:

  • Like the Curiosity rover, Perseverance has six wheels, and the suspension system used the Rocker-Bogie suspension system.
  • The wheels of Perseverance are narrower than its predecessor Curiosity, but diameter of the wheels is greater.
  • This system can tackle the tilt of 45 degrees, but the sensors and the algorithms restrict it to 30 degrees to maintain its motion.
  • The wheels and the suspension system were designed by NASA’s JPL and are still used in the MERs.
  • The Rocker-Bogie is also used in military vehicles and semi-trailer trucks.

Processor:

  • It has two on-board computers, known as Rover Compute element or RCE
  • The CPU embedded in the Perseverance computers is RAD750.
  • These computers have 256kb of EEPROM, 256Mb of dynamic RAM or DRAM and 2Gb of flash memory.
  • The rover computers are embedded with control algorithms for navigation and capturing samples of Martian surfaces.
  • For precise movements and better autonomous navigation, an Inertial Measurement Unit (IMU) is used that ensures that the rover travels safe paths and unexpected tilts are avoided.

Others:

On the robotic arm:
  • Alpha particle X-ray spectrometer
  • Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI)
  • SHERLOC
  • WATSON
  • PIXL
On the mast:
  • MastCam-Z
  • SuperCam
  • Ultrahigh Frequency Antenna (UHF)
  • Rover Environment Monitoring System (REMS)
  • HazCams
  • NavCams
On the body:
  • Dust Removal Tool (DRT)
  • MOXIE
  • Radiation Assessment Detector
  • RTG
  • Mars Descent Imager (MARDI)
  • X-band High Gain Antenna
  • X-band Low Gain Antenna

Recent Technology Introduced in MERs:

NASA has embedded a lot of modern technologies in its MERs. These are used in new inventions and industrial products. Below is the technology employed in designs of the rovers: `

  • Autonomous traverse and Inertial measurement unit (IMU)
  • Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator (RTG)
  • Mars Environmental Dynamics Analyzer (MEDA)
  • Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI)
  • Plan Execution Interchange Language (PLEXIL)
  • Rover Environmental Monitoring System (REMS)
  • Radar Imager for Mar’s Subsurface Exploration (RIMFAX)
  • Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment (MOXIE)
  • Ultrahigh Frequency Antenna (UHF)
  • Scanning Habitable Environments with Raman and Luminescence for Organics and Chemicals (SHERLOC)
  • SuperCam
  • PanCams, NavCams, HazCams
  • Alpha Particle X-ray Spectrometer

Details and Applications of Automation Used in Mars Rovers:

Autonomous Traversal in MER:

This allows the MER to navigate its way through the surface and uneven terrain, helping the MER to avoid tilts. Inertial Measurement Unit (IMU) is used for this purpose. IMU is a sensor that consists of an accelerometer, a gyroscope, a magnetometer, and a GPS through which the motion and the position of the MER can be determined in three directions and the MER can move in any unstructured environment. This technology can be used in UGVs, autonomous cars and robots for military and industrial purposes. The IMU can be embedded on planes, drones and submarines for efficient and autonomous navigation and operation.

PLEXIL:

It is the language developed by NASA for commanding and monitoring autonomous systems. This coding language can be used to control robots and industrial processes that require autonomous control in future. It is widely used in automation involved in NASA’s spacecrafts.

REMS:

This consists of various sensors for detecting air temperature, humidity, ground temperature, atmospheric pressure, and UV rays. This was used to gather data about the environmental conditions on Mars. This technology can be used in:

  • Automation industries to ensure the working environment of instruments like PLCs, PowerFlex, SLCs etc.
  • In laboratories and pharmacies to monitor the temperature and safe environment for chemicals and medicines.
  • In poultry farms, beehives to ensure the temperature is maintained for breeding.

MAHLI:

The geologist used this tool to detect and identify the minerals in a rock. This technology was used in the rover for Martian surface but the same can be used to detect the minerals in the areas where human evaluation cannot be possible. These areas may include tough terrains or mountainous areas. MAHLI is a valuable tool for exploration of new surfaces and discovering new resources and since it can be embedded on a robot or a UGV, it can function during both day and night. Hence, bringing innovation to exploration.

RIMFAX:

It is a GPR (ground penetrating radar) that is used in rover to study Martian subsurface. It was used to detect minerals and any water traces underground on the Martian surface. It has the ability to detect mines, cables, wires, minerals, or anything that might be buried underground. Hence, it can be used for:

  • Geological purposes are to detect minerals and rocks.
  • For military purposes to detect mines.
  • RIMFAX can also be implanted in oil detection and extraction rigs.
  • It can also be used to detect the water easily instead of drilling holes on the land, saving both energy and time.
  • Ruins of ancient civilizations can be detected and explored through this technology more easily rather than digging vast areas.

MOXIE:

It is another technology being used in Mars rover for creating oxygen on the Martian surface using the CO2 present there and making the fuel. This technology would be used to make oxygen on Mars in future on a large scale to make Mars habitable for humans.

MEDA:

 It was used in the Mars rover for analyzing the wind and the size of dust particles there since these are abundant. MEDA can be used in analyzing the wind and dust conditions of an area to predict the environmental conditions there. It can also be used in autonomous air filters to filter out the small dust particles in industries. This can be used in labs where air filtration is required. MEDA can also be used inside the hospitals to filter out the contaminants in the air that could harm the patients and can be hazardous to the environment.

Terrain Relative Navigation and Range Trigger:

This technology is used for opening the parachute within specified distance and landing the rover on the target. The algorithms are designed in such a way so that if any obstructions or high terrain comes in the way, the rover would move to a new position and then land safely. This technology has wide application in the field of aerospace as it can be embedded in autonomous planes and drones for safe and successful operations during and after the flight. This technology can also be embedded in helicopters for rescue operations after floods, landslides, and earthquakes etc. to land the helicopter on the even target and avoid any obstruction during the operation. Geo mapping can also be modified using this technology.

Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator:

Also known as Multi-mission Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator or MMRTG, it can be used in aircraft and spacecrafts to meet their energy requirements. The RTG produces heat which can help maintain the temperature in the spacecraft. Since a lot of heat energy is given off by the RTG, it can be converted to electric energy, and this can be a reliable source of electricity to meet world’s energy requirements.

SHERLOC:

It is embedded on robotic arm of the MER. It is the instrument used for non-contact, overly sensitive detection and characterization of organics and minerals that exist on surface and underground. This can be used in geological research and exploration of underground water in dry and barren areas. This can also be used to find underground water traces. This technology can also be used in biomedical and bioengineering domain.

Cams:

Cams used were HazCams, NavCams, PanCams, MastCam and a SuperCam. All are used for image processing, detecting, capturing, and sensing the environment for better navigation and results. These cams can be deployed in autonomous cars, drones, UGVs. Humanoid robots can be embedded with these cams for advanced and efficient movements.

SuperCam:

It was used in the Perseverance MER to identify the chemical composition and the molecular structure of the rocks and the soil on the Martian surface. This instrument can be used for geological purposes and explorations to identify the chemical compositions and the rock structure. Biologists can also use it to study the chemical composition of the soil that is favorable for the growth of plants and can help increase the overall crop output. This can also be used to study the structure of biomolecules and microorganisms for medicinal purposes. The structure of viruses and other agents of diseases can be studied, and this can also be used for bioengineering purposes.

Alpha Particle X-Ray Spectrometer:

This was used to trace the elements and minerals on Martian surface. It is used in chemical analysis for studying the molecular structure, medicinal techniques and research on biomolecules, geological explorations, and mining techniques and. It is also used in detecting radioactive elements in industrial products.

In short, NASA has developed many advanced and new autonomous technologies that provide the solution and alternate to a lot of automation problems and inventions in technical, medical, and geological domains.

This entry was posted on November 21st, 2022 and is filed under Uncategorized. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

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