Look out Mars, Curiosity now has the authority to laser at will.
After nearly four years of sciencing the Red Planet, NASA has announced it will now let the Curiosity rover choose which targets to zap with its laser spectrometer—sans human approval.
As part of its science arsenal, the rover is equipped with a special instrument designed to investigate the chemical composition of rocks and soil on Mars. Dubbed ChemCam, the instrument zaps identified targets with a laser and then analyzes the puff of gas produced. While the laser is firing, spectrometers inside ChemCam record the color wavelengths produced and beams that data back to Earth, where scientists are able to identify what chemical elements are present.
Since landing on the Red Planet, Curiosity has fired its laser over 350,000 times at more than 1,400 different targets selected based on images provided by the rover's camera. Now with the help of special software developed at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Curiosity is able to zap multiple targets of its choosing per week; however, the majority of ChemCam's targets are still selected by humans back on Earth.
Curiosity is able to zap multiple targets of its choosing per week
The software, called AEGIS (or Autonomous Exploration for Gathering Increased Science) was previously used on the Opportunity rover, to help select targets the rover would investigate. Having the capability to autonomously perform these types of tasks has great benefit to the missions. It's especially useful in times of increased communication delays between the planets or when the orbiters are not in the prime position to relay communications.
So how does it work? The rover takes pictures of its surroundings and the AEGIS software then analyzes those images, looking for interesting targets as far away as 23 feet (7 meters). Once the software selects a particularly interesting target, the rover can drive over to it, zap it with a laser and transmit the data to scientists without having to wait for human guidance.
AEGIS also works to help Curiosity identify and target small-scale features like mineral veins in rocks with increased accuracy.
"Due to their small size and other pointing challenges, hitting these targets accurately with the laser has often required the rover to stay in place while ground operators fine tune pointing parameters," Tara Estlin, AEGIS project lead said. "AEGIS enables these targets to be hit on the first try by automatically identifying them and calculating a pointing that will center a ChemCam measurement on the target."