Mars Rover ‘Curiosity’ Can Fire Onboard Laser By Itself


Washington: For the first time, NASA’s Mars Curiosity rover can fire its onboard laser all by itself, mission scientists say.

New software is enabling ChemCam, the laser spectrometer on Curiosity, to select rock targets autonomously – the first time autonomous target selection is available for an instrument of this kind on any robotic planetary mission.

The ChemCam (chemistry and camera) instrument aboard Curiosity “zaps” rocks on Mars and analyses their chemical make-up. While most ChemCam targets are still selected by scientists, the rover itself now chooses multiple targets per week. “This new capability will give us a chance to analyse even more rock and soil samples on Mars,” said Roger Wiens, principal investigator for ChemCam at Los Alamos National Laboratory in the US.

“The science team is not always available to pick samples for analysis. Having a smarter rover that can pick its own samples is completely in line with self-driving cars and other smart technologies being implemented on Earth,” said Wiens.

To select a target autonomously, the software uses adjustable criteria specified by scientists, such as identifying rocks based on their size or brightness. The criteria can be changed depending on the rover’s surroundings and the scientific goals of the measurements. ChemCam’s spectrometers record the wavelengths seen through a telescope while the laser is firing.

This information enables scientists to identify chemical composition of the targets. Through the same telescope, the instrument on the rover’s mast takes images that are of the highest resolution available. In nearly four years since landing on Mars, ChemCam has analysed roughly 1,500 rock and soil samples with more than 350,000 total laser shots at about 10,000 points in all.

The autonomous software is called AEGIS (Autonomous Exploration for Gathering Increased Science) and was developed by engineers at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. The most frequent application of AEGIS uses onboard computer analysis of images from Curiosity’s stereo Navigation Camera (Navcam), which are taken routinely at each location where the rover ends a drive.

From the top of Curiosity’s mast, the instrument can analyse the composition of a rock or soil target from up to about seven meters away. The rover’s extended mission is analysing evidence about how the environment on Mars changed billions of years ago from conditions well-suited to microbial life, if any life has ever existed on Mars, to dry, inhospitable conditions.