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February 18, 2021

The AI Inside NASA’s Latest Mars Rover, Perseverance

As NASA’s latest Mars rover, Perseverance, prepares to land on the Martian surface Feb. 18 (Thursday) after a six-month flight to the red planet, the use of AI will quickly become an important part of the rover’s mission once it begins to traverse the landscape.

As Perseverance jumps into its goal of searching for traces of microscopic life on Mars that dates back billions of years, the rover will use an AI-powered device called the Planetary Instrument for X-ray Lithochemistry, or PIXL, to search for clues, according to NASA. PIXL is a lunchbox-size instrument carried at the end of Perseverance’s 7-foot-long robotic arm. Using a coring drill on the end of the arm, the rover will collect core samples from the planet that will be left on the Mars surface for collection by a future mission.

AI will also be used aboard Perseverance for navigation on the planet’s surface over the life of its mission, as well as for the landing and a variety of other scientific tasks. The mission is scheduled to last for at least one Martian year, which is about 687 Earth days.

But before the rover can ever use any of those AI capabilities, it will have to endure its actual landing on the surface, which is being called the riskiest approach ever by any spacecraft heading to Mars.

Perseverance is scheduled to land on the red planet’s surface about 3:55 pm EST on Feb. 18 after what is billed as a harrowing approach that mission engineers have dubbed as “seven minutes of terror,” according to NASA. That’s how long it takes for scientists and engineers at NASA and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) to learn how the landing went due to delays in getting mission telemetry data across the 293 million miles between the Earth and Mars.

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