Mars rover tested in Chile desert

June 18, 2012 at 4:11 PM
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PARIS, June 18 (UPI) -- A fully autonomous vehicle designed as a planetary rover has been successfully tested in Chile's Mars-like Atacama Desert, scientists say.

The recent test of the Seeker full-scale rover is a step toward creating unmanned rovers that can navigate their own way on alien planets, the European Space Agency reported from its Paris Headquarters.

A multidisciplinary team worked at the site in Chile, it said.

"Their challenge was to demonstrate how a planetary rover -- programmed with state-of-the-art software for autonomous navigation and making decisions -- could traverse 6 kilometers (3.75 miles) in a Mars-like environment and come back where it started," ESA's Gianfranco Visentin said.

Since it takes radio signals up to 40 minutes to make the trip to Mars and back, Mars rovers cannot be "driven" directly from Earth, researchers said, and instead must be given instructions to carry out autonomously.

"ESA's ExoMars rover, due to land on Mars in 2018, will have state-of-the-art autonomy," Visentin said.

"Lacking GPS on Mars, the rover can only determine how far it has moved relative to its starting point, but the errors in 'dead reckoning' build up into risky uncertainties."

Seeker used its stereo vision to map its surroundings, assess how far it had moved and plan its route, making sure to avoid obstacles, researchers said.

"We managed 5.1 kilometer (3.1 miles), somewhat short of our 6-kilometer (3.7-mile) goal, but an excellent result considering the variety of terrain crossed, changes in lighting conditions experienced and most of all this was ESA's first large-scale rover test -- though definitely not our last," Visentin said.

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