NASA's Opportunity rover. Credit: NASA

New software uploaded to NASA’s Opportunity Mars rover allows the robot to make its own decisions about whether to make additional observations of Mars rocks it spots upon arriving at a new location.

The rover has taken its first automated images of martian rocks to test out how well the new program works.

“It’s a way to get some bonus science,” said rover driver Tara Estlin of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, Calif., also a member of JPL’s Artificial Intelligence Group, which developed the new software.

Opportunity, now in its seventh year on Mars along with its sister Spirit, is making good progress to its next target, the large crater Endeavor. At that destination, and all along its roughly 12-kilometer journey there, Opportunity will analyze rocks and other features of its surroundings to help scientists learn more about the martian terrain.

The new software system on Opportunity is called Autonomous Exploration for Gathering Increased Science, or AEGIS.

With it, Opportunity’s computer can 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.

Using the software on Opportunity is a way to take advantage of the rover’s longevity to test out advances in robotic autonomy for future missions.

Without the software, follow-up observations depend on first transmitting the post-drive navigation camera images to Earth for ground operators to check for targets of interest to examine on a later day. Because of time and data-volume constraints, the rover team may opt to drive the rover again before potential targets are identified or before examining targets that are not the highest priority.

The first images taken by a Mars rover choosing its own target show a rock about the size of a football, tan in color and layered in texture. It appears to be one of the rocks tossed outward onto the surface when an impact dug a nearby crater.

Opportunity pointed its panoramic camera at this unnamed rock after analyzing a wider-angle photo taken by the rover’s navigation camera at the end of a drive March 4. Opportunity decided this particular rock, out of more than 50 in the navigation camera photo, best met the criteria researchers had set for a target of interest: large and dark.

“It found exactly the target we would want it to find,” Estlin said. “This checkout went just as we had planned, thanks to many people’s work, but it’s still amazing to see Opportunity performing a new autonomous activity after more than six years on Mars.”