NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover can now independently pick the rock it wants to shoot its laser at without much help from the scientists down on Earth.
In a statement, NASA announced that Curiosity is now frequently choosing multiple targets per week for a laser and a telescopic camera which are part of its Chemistry and Camera (ChemCam) instrument. The ChemCam targets are usually picked by scientists depending on the pictures of the rock and soil beamed down by the rover.
Curiosity is using the Autonomous Exploration for Gathering Increased Science (AEGIS) software for its autonomous target selection. The software was previously used on NASA’s Opportunity Mras rover, but less frequently.
— Curiosity Rover (@MarsCuriosity) July 21, 2016
“This autonomy is particularly useful at times when getting the science team in the loop is difficult or impossible — in the middle of a long drive, perhaps, or when the schedules of Earth, Mars and spacecraft activities lead to delays in sharing information between the planets,” robotics engineer and the leader of AEGIS development Tara Estlin said.
The rover picks the rocks based on specific brightness and size criteria laid out by scientists ahead of time. The rover has fired its laser over 350,000 times so far at about 10,000 targets. Using the robot’s new independence, scientists can study more rocks than before.
“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,” Estlin said.