NASA Begins Testing on Perseverance Rover’s Twin, Optimism

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NASA’s Perseverance rover is on its way to Mars, but that doesn’t mean that the rover team at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) is taking a break: This week, researchers have been testing a twin of the rover which stayed here on Earth, an engineering version called OPTIMISM (Operational Perseverance Twin for Integration of Mechanisms and Instruments Sent to Mars).

There are a few important differences between OPTIMISM and Perseverance, such as power delivery. Perseverance is powered through a nuclear trickle-charged battery, while OPTIMISM has an umbilical cord that provides its power and allows the team to make a direct ethernet connection with which they can send commands and receive data.

However, OPTIMISM has the same wheels, cameras, and autonomous driving capabilities as Perseverance, and it is being put through its paces with a series of driving tests at JPL. So far, it has only been tested inside a warehouse, but soon it will be taken to the “Mars Yard,” an outdoor area that simulates the martian surface.

Engineers test drive the Earth-bound twin of NASA’s Perseverance Mars rover for the first time in a warehouse-like assembly room at the agency’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California. NASA/JPL-Caltech

“Perseverance’s mobility team can’t wait to finally drive our test rover outside,” Anais Zarifian, the mobility test bed engineer at JPL, said in a statement. “This is the test robot that comes closest to simulating the actual mission operations Perseverance will experience on Mars — with wheels, eyes, and brains all together — so this rover is going to be especially fun to work with.”

The aim of testing the engineering version is to check performance in various settings and to ensure that any changes made to the rover, in particular regarding software updates, won’t have unexpected consequences.

“The Mars 2020 Perseverance test bed team’s motto is ‘No optimism allowed,’” Matt Stumbo, the lead for the vehicle system test bed (VSTB), said in the statement. “So we named the test rover OPTIMISM to remind us of the work we have to do to fully test the system. Our job is to find problems, not just hope activities will work. As we work through the issues with OPTIMISM, we gain confidence in Perseverance’s capabilities and confidence in our ability to operate on Mars.”

For now, testing of OPTIMISM will continue ahead of the landing of Perseverance on Mars in February next year.

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