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Question Your World: Why Can't These Mars Rovers Go Any Faster?

In ten years even slow animals like turtles can clock a good amount of miles, so why do our rovers on Mars move even slower than that? Why can't these Mars rovers move any faster? Find out in this week’s Question Your World Radio Report from the Science Museum of Virginia.

There are a lot of science fiction movies ranging from early more-primitive film technology to the latest CGI filled Hollywood blockbusters. These movies usually have space probes being sent to foreign places to explore uncharted landscapes. After watching a handful of these movies you may draw two conclusions, space probes usually have lasers and can move around pretty quickly. So, what's the deal with our working rovers on Mars clocking less than fifty miles in the past decade combined? Those things redefine slow-motion. The record for most distance traveled on another planet currently belongs to the Opportunity rover at a mere 22 miles. The lasers will have to wait, we need to get these things to move a bit faster first! 

So, why do they move so slowly? Well, the simple answer is that, though they are very advanced and complex machines, they're just not smart…yet. These expensive and sometimes fragile rover components can't just be flung through unknown landscapes. There are rocks, dust storms, cliffs, valleys, mud, sand, and many more things that we can't have jeopardize our mission to explore and beam back data. In order to make sure we're being as careful as possible we still monitor visuals and give movement commands from here, all the way back on Earth, millions of miles from the rovers. The communication distance ranges anywhere from four minutes to twenty minutes just to send a signal. Then you wait for the rover to do what you sent, then you wait another four to twenty minutes for a reply letting you know it did what you wanted it to do. All in all this means a simple "move forward two feet" command could take nearly an hour to accomplish. And you thought the rush hour crawl was slow, this makes Earthly traffic jams seem like a walk in the park! 

So, how do we make this process more efficient? Well, the good people over at NASA are currently working on this slow issue by doing some quick thinking. Seeing as how we've made so many leaps and bounds in smart-technology, NASA is trying to work out a new series of smart-cameras that will enable the next generation of rovers to do a little bit of thinking on their own. New smart-camera technology would be a huge step forward in unmanned exploration. For example, a camera that can merge optics with GPS type navigation capabilities would prevent the crawl by crawl relay from Mars to Earth. The rovers would be able to use an advanced tracking system to route courses and somewhat move on their own pace. The other big bonus to this would be to add recognition and data processing software into the cameras and rovers so the machines would be able to see target and track down specific things on the Martian surface instead of having to wait for each command from Earth. 

These updates to the rovers could make a vast difference in the efficiency and sustainability of the projects. Instead of a decade spent covering twenty miles or so, these machines could be putting a bit more mileage under those wheels and perhaps increase the flow of data being beamed back to Earth. These robotic smart cameras are still under production and there have been no set dates announced, but this would be a pretty fantastic new addition to an already incredible project. Once we get those cameras working then we can finally move on to the lasers!!

Article by Prabir Mehta, Science Museum of Virginia

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