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Mars rover gets smarter with age...and software

Thanks to new software uploaded into its memory, NASA's Mars rover Opportunity is now able to make decisions about what rocks it should fully investigate.

Mars Rover
Mars rover Opportunity NASA/JPL-Caltech

NASA's rover Opportunity is getting smarter through software.

Celebrating its seventh year investigating the surface of the Red Planet, Opportunity is now able to make its own choices about which rocks it should investigate further and which ones it should leave alone, according to a NASA report on Tuesday.

Thanks to a new software upload, Opportunity's computer can analyze the photos taken with its wide-angle camera and isolate rocks that meet specific criteria. It can then determine whether specific rocks are worthy of close-up shots through its narrow-angle, color-filtered camera.

The new software called Autonomous Exploration for Gathering Increased Science, or AEGIS for short, helps speed up the pace at which Opportunity can do its job. Previously, the vehicle's wide-angle photos would have to be sent back to Earth, where NASA staff would determine which rocks deserved a closer look. In the meantime, Opportunity would have gone along on its merry way in search of new targets to snap.

But Opportunity's new software smarts means it can work without a leash, stopping on its own at key points along a single drive or returning to them at the end of its workday. And so far, Opportunity has been making its NASA owners proud.

The first photos taken by Opportunity after its software upgrade showed a rock about as large as a football apparently thrown onto the surface after an object had dug a large crater, said NASA. After reviewing a wide-angle photo taken of this area at an earlier date, Opportunity decided to zero in on this one rock out of more than 50 others based on the instructions NASA had given it to look for something large and dark.

First Image from a Mars Rover Choosing a Target
The first image from a Mars rover choosing a target NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell University

"It found exactly the target we would want it to find," Tara Estlin, of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., said in a news release. "This checkout went just as we had planned, thanks to many people's work, but it's still amazing to see Opportunity performing a new autonomous activity after more than six years on Mars."

Despite its long, arduous journey across the planet, Opportunity is still ambling along. But unfortunately its twin, Spirit, hasn't fared as well. Stuck in a Martian sandtrap for almost a year, Spirit has been forced to conduct its experiments from a single spot following NASA's unsuccessful attempts to free the vehicle. Still, in their time on the planet, both rovers have manage to take some amazing photographs, providing NASA with key research into our red neighbor.