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NASA’s Perseverance Mars rover is trying to cover more distance in a single month than any rover before it – and it’s doing so using artificial intelligence. On the path ahead are sandpits, craters, and fields of sharp rocks that the rover will have to navigate around on its own. At the end of the 3-mile (5-kilometer) journey, which began March 14, 2022, Perseverance will reach an ancient river delta within Jezero Crater, where a lake existed billions of years ago.
This delta is one of the best locations on Mars for the rover to look for signs of past microscopic life. Using a drill on the end of its robotic arm and a complex sample collection system in its belly, Perseverance is collecting rock cores for return to Earth – the first part of the Mars Sample Return campaign.
“The delta is so important that we’ve actually decided to minimize science activities and focus on driving to get there more quickly,” said Ken Farley of Caltech, Perseverance’s project scientist. “We’ll be taking lots of images of the delta during that drive. The closer we get, the more impressive those images will be.”
NASA’s Perseverance Mars rover will follow the proposed route to Jezero Crater’s delta shown in this animation. The delta is one the most important locations the rover will visit as it seeks signs of ancient life on Mars. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU/MSSS/University of Arizona
The science team will be searching these images for the rocks they’ll eventually want to study in closer detail using the instruments on Perseverance’s arm. They’ll also hunt for the best routes the rover can take to ascend the 130-foot-high (40-meter-high) delta.
But first, Perseverance needs to get there. The rover will do this by relying on its self-driving AutoNav system, which has already set impressive distance records. While all of NASA’s Mars rovers have had self-driving abilities, Perseverance has the most advanced one yet.
“Self-driving processes that took minutes on a rover like Opportunity happen in less than a second on Perseverance,” said veteran rover planner and flight software developer Mark Maimone of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California, which leads the mission. “Because autonomous driving is now faster, we can cover more ground than if humans programmed every drive.”