According to the latest release, submitted by the American Geophysical Union, NASA are currently developing a radical new “smart” camera, which could have groundbreaking implications for the way future space explorations are conducted. Researchers believe this could have huge implications for exploring the many mysteries of distant worlds.
The latest cameras don’t simply passively collect and transmit imagery of its surroundings. Based upon its intelligent design, it can process the appearance of these pictures to determine its next course of action. It can reveal whether a particular location is a valuable point of interest, or whether it should move its exploratory talents elsewhere.
Limitations to Current Technologies
As things currently stand, NASA will deploy its rovers on an expedition, and vigilantly monitor their every movement and activity. This approach can be consuming in terms of time, labor and finances, and becomes more difficult the further away the mission takes place.
According to Kiri Wagstaff, who works as a geologist and computer scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the future of space exploration depends upon the introduction of greater autonomy in their equipment:
“We currently have a micromanaging approach to space exploration… While this suffices for our rovers on Mars, it works less and less well the further you get from the Earth.”
Wagstaff goes on to discuss the difficulty in moving away from traditional sites of exploration, that NASA has become accustomed with, towards unexplored asteroids and Europa, for example. She claims that such missions would remain entirely unfeasible based upon current technology.
Information takes a long time to relay between Earth and Mars. NASA’s team of astronomers need to program each rover, every single day, to perform its duties. From moving a distance of meters to taking photographs, a ground team is responsible for overseeing these basic tasks. Sending these instructions to Mars takes considerable time and, therefore, the contingency of real-time control is not possible. NASA’s groundbreaking smart camera should enable the team to explore distant worlds with much greater efficiency.
Wagstaff explains, back on Earth, scientists must prepare a rover’s mission from the previous day’s set of images, due to data communication delays, with a bandwidth of just 0.01 megabits each second being possible between Earth and the Red Planet. Obviously, this represents a significant bottlenock to NASA’s daily performance, slowing proceedings down considerably.
The new technology has been labeled TextureCam, which uses the power of a two-lens camera system. The key benefit to TextureCam lies in its ability to assimilate information about its terrain, on the fly, without needing input from ground control teams. Existing rovers, including Curiosity, which is currently exploring Mars, have the capacity to differentiate between certain materials within its environment; however, these technologies also rely upon beaming back this data to Earth, so further analysis can be performed. TextureCam will not be limited by these hurdles, saving precious time.
The new technology has been designed to incorporate a dedicated processor, separate from the rover’s primary computer, which can interpret 3-dimensional imagery. As the rover’s main processor is incredibly busy computing other tasks, it is imperative it remains unburdened from having to process acquired imagery. Instead, TextureCam takes a high resolution image of a particular region and determines the texture differences between various surfaces and materials within the resulting photograph; the TextureCam can separate the sky from rocks and sand, and can even work out the size of particular rock formations, as well as their distance, before relaying a signal to the main processor.
If the amazing new camera identifies an area of intrigue, it will direct the main processor to move the rover to the location in question, for closer inspection, enabling samples to be obtained.
According to Wagstaff, priming the device was simply a matter of showing it various types of rocks, which had been snapped from previous expeditions to Mars. The TextureCam device was informed which rocks were scientifically relevant versus those which were not. Slowly, the technology began to improve with time, and the device has even been taken out for a test drive in the Mojave desert.
Other New Technologies
Excitingly, this also comes in the wake of two other important technological developments, which should permit easier control over distant rovers. NASA has recently tested an autonomous navigation system for its Mars-based Curiosity rover, helping it trek over short distances completely unguided. In addition to this, the latest launch of their Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer (LADEE) looks set to test the viability of a laser-based communications system; LADEE houses a Lunar Laser Communication Demonstration (LLCD) device, which should enable high-speed, high-bandwidth communication, and could eventually signal the control of rovers in real-time.
For now, however, NASA’s groundbreaking new smart camera looks set to change the way the space agency explores distant worlds, and is likely to make future space missions far more efficient. Let’s hope they can use this technology to continue to explore the many mysteries of our galaxy.
By: James Fenner