On Mars, an autonomous rover and helicopter will roam free

The Perseverance rover is the size of a small car and more technologically sophisticated than anything you’ve ever seen. | NASA / JPL

Some powerful self-driving tech is on its way to the Red Planet.

NASA’s Perseverance rover launched at 7:50 am ET on July 30, the first day of a flight that will take the fifth NASA rover to Mars. During its mission, the boxy, car-sized vehicle and its extendable arm will be charged with looking for signs of ancient life and gathering data about Mars’s geology and climate. It will even lay the groundwork for eventual human exploration of the planet.
To make all that possible, the rover carries a stunning display of technology designed especially for Perseverance’s historic mission, from pieces of a new spacesuit to an autonomous helicopter, the first aircraft ever sent to another planet. Those tools will help the rover gather data about the planet’s atmosphere, which it can then send back to NASA. There’s also an excavation system that can collect high-quality samples of Martian soil to be stashed and later analyzed by a future mission to Mars.
In the years the new rover is expected to operate, these machines will battle challenges that terrestrial technology never has to deal with, including the Red Planet’s super-thin atmosphere, limited resources, incredibly cold temperatures, and delayed communication with human overlords on Earth.
To give you an idea of how all this will happen, we’ve outlined some of the coolest features that will be on display when Perseverance finally arrives on Mars in February .
Perseverance is armed with advanced self-driving tech
Key to its mission’s success is the ability for Perseverance to self-drive. The vehicle has a computer devoted to its autonomous capabilities, and as Wired explains , it was designed and built specifically for this mission. The autonomous driving feature is essential because Mars is simply too far away for humans to give the vehicle constant, real-time instructions. So the rover needs to fend for itself.
“One of the fundamental constraints of any kind of space exploration — whether you’re going to Mars or Europa or the moon — is that you have limited bandwidth, which means a limit on the amount of information you can send back and forth,” David Wettergreen, research professor at Carnegie Mellon’s Robotics Institute , told Recode. “During the periods of time when the robot can’t communicate, autonomy is important for it to enable it to keep doing tasks, to explore on its own, to make progress, rather than just sitting there waiting for the next time it hears from us.”

But building an autonomous vehicle for Mars is not necessarily as easy as building a self-driving car here on Earth (and that’s not easy , either). For one thing, the vehicle needs to be primarily concerned with safety, not with speed or the comfort of its passengers. After receiving...