Opportunity Rover Fires Up Engines, Starts Another Year Exploring Mars

Oppy survives another Martian winter and is ready to get back to doing science

2 min read
Opportunity Rover Fires Up Engines, Starts Another Year Exploring Mars

This picture shows the spot that the Opportunity Mars rover has been sitting on for the last 19 weeks doing its level best to try not to starve to death from lack of solar power. Or I guess, unlevel best, since she was stuck on that little outcropping (called Greely Haven) to keep her solar panels oriented more directly at the sun. But now, the sun is high enough in the sky for Oppy to get her roll on, and she snapped this pic looking backwards after a 3-meter drive into unexplored terrain.

It's a shame that Opportunity doesn't make the news every single day for the fact that she's still wandering around on Mars and doing science. I mean, the robot landed in 2004. I barely remember 2004. Her original mission was slated to last 90 days, but she's gone beyond that by over 2,800 days. Besides dust collecting on the rover's solar panels, the only issue Opportunity has really had is a misbehaving shoulder joint, which necessitates driving with her arm deployed. Not bad for a total distance driven of nearly 35 kilometers.

An orbital view of Opportunity's current location on Mars; click here for a version you can actually see.

In the short term, Oppy will make sure that she's getting enough solar power to keep driving and doing science: her winter spot on the outcropping kept her tilted 15 degrees northward towards the sun, and after this drive, she's only tilted eight degrees. If everything looks good, the rover will travel another few meters towards a bright looking patch of dust to investigate, and beyond that Endeavour craters has plenty of good spots to check out, including some ancient clays spotted from orbit that could provide more clues about Mars' watery past.

And of course, we can't forget NASA's new, bigger, and more capable rover, Curiosity, currently en route en space and scheduled to land on Mars in August. That'll be huge, but we'll be sure not to ignore Oppy after Curiosity lands: it's going to be tough for the new rover to live up to the expectations set by it's predecessors.

[ NASA JPL press release ]

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How the U.S. Army Is Turning Robots Into Team Players

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Robot with threads near a fallen branch

RoMan, the Army Research Laboratory's robotic manipulator, considers the best way to grasp and move a tree branch at the Adelphi Laboratory Center, in Maryland.

Evan Ackerman

This article is part of our special report on AI, “The Great AI Reckoning.

"I should probably not be standing this close," I think to myself, as the robot slowly approaches a large tree branch on the floor in front of me. It's not the size of the branch that makes me nervous—it's that the robot is operating autonomously, and that while I know what it's supposed to do, I'm not entirely sure what it will do. If everything works the way the roboticists at the U.S. Army Research Laboratory (ARL) in Adelphi, Md., expect, the robot will identify the branch, grasp it, and drag it out of the way. These folks know what they're doing, but I've spent enough time around robots that I take a small step backwards anyway.

The robot, named RoMan, for Robotic Manipulator, is about the size of a large lawn mower, with a tracked base that helps it handle most kinds of terrain. At the front, it has a squat torso equipped with cameras and depth sensors, as well as a pair of arms that were harvested from a prototype disaster-response robot originally developed at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory for a DARPA robotics competition. RoMan's job today is roadway clearing, a multistep task that ARL wants the robot to complete as autonomously as possible. Instead of instructing the robot to grasp specific objects in specific ways and move them to specific places, the operators tell RoMan to "go clear a path." It's then up to the robot to make all the decisions necessary to achieve that objective.

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