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New generation of Mars exploration rovers boost navigation innovation

by Rus Abz 2011-11-30 11:51

Mars Curiosity Rover JetsIn eight months after covering 354 million miles NASA Curiosity extraterrestrial exploration rover carried by Atlas V rocket will reach Mars. Curiosity mobile research platform will deliver the carbon compound-seeking instruments to the red planet to see whether it might have been hospitable for microbial life once upon a time. The instruments will hunt for traces of organic compounds to search for evidence that Mars might even still be conducive to life now. 

Curiosity represents a new generation of sophisticated and extremely capable nuclear-powered mobile laboratory. This monster truck of Mars carries onboard 10.6 pounds of radioactive plutonium feeding nuclear generator which powers vehicle's unique drive train, service gears and an array of scientific instruments including a drill and a stone-zapping laser machine, among others  that will sample Martian soil and rocks and thin atmosphere. The onboard supercomputer is capable of pre-processing and consolidating gathered information running the analysis algorithms right on the spot. Curiosity's robotic arm is equipped with a jackhammer on the end to drill into the Martian red rock, while the 7-foot rover navigation mast holds up high-definition video, infrared and laser cameras. 

The success of $2.5 billion Martian rover mission, and future rover automatons projects will always need a way to know where they are. NASA researchers and scientists have been studying the requirements for a potential global positioning satellite GPS system around Mars that could also function as a communications network. The vision is a small flotilla of Mars spacecraft conducting their own science while watching over future robotic or human expeditions, then relaying data back to Earth.   

Astronomers with the Center for Space Physics studied the effect of Mars' ionosphere would have on a potential satellite navigation system around the planet. The research is part of an effort to  develop the foundation for the satellite constellation GPS infrastructure. Based on the experiments conducted by the Mars exploration rovers Spirit and Opportunity currently deployed on the planet  researchers from NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory envision GPS satellite constellation capability to provide an extended Mars global network for navigation and communication to support the anticipated fleet of rover missions to Mars in upcoming years. A dedicated Mars GPS satellite constellation navigation system would be a boon for future robots bound for the red planet, allowing them to drive farther without having to stop and check their distance with photographic records.

Mars GPS Satellite Constellation for future missions

Researchers have also been able to pinpoint changes in rover positioning by studying the Doppler shift in its radio frequency during communications with orbiting spacecraft. Since 2004 navigation control experiments between the orbiting Mars Odyssey, Spirit and Opportunity landed and driven robotic explorers on the surface of Mars have proven to be accurate down to about 32 feet or 10 meters. That sort of positioning is most likely remain to be the navigation support system of choice for current missions. Mobile exploration vehicle GPS onboard navigation system relies on direct visibility of multiple GPS assets in orbit, with at least four satellites required for reliable navigation. Each orbiter capable of performing the GPS satellite functionality could be used as a building block of the new GPS satellite constellation. 

In the future missions the newly established GPS constellation will allow to determine each rover's three-dimensional location and provide time synchronization for each participant exploration vehicle acquiring services from Mars GPS and communication networks. In addition to Mars Odyssey, there are currently only two other orbiters around the red planet: Mars Global Surveyor and Mars Express. They use robust communication system and Doppler technique to support rovers. It remains to be seen if the fourth such orbiting spacecraft would become available as an orbiter, and all four would have sufficient GPS capabilities for basic GPS constellation formation. 

Pseudo Satellite GPS system

Alternatively NASA is considering a Self-Calibrating Pseudo Satellite Array GPS navigation system. This array consists of several GPS pseudolites and receivers communicating amongst themselves using GPS signals. This allows the pseudolites to determine their own position relative to the each other with centimeter-level accuracy. Once the positions are accurately known, any robotic vehicle can navigate within the array as it would with conventional pseudo-satellites.

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