Curiosity is firing lasers on Mars– without help from humans

An autonomous targeting system originally announced by NASA last summer has allowed the Mars Curiosity rover to drastically increase the number of times per day it blasts rocks with its laser instrument, allowing it to collect more data than ever before, the agency has revealed.

Known as the Autonomous Exploration for Gathering Increased Science (AEGIS), the program allows Curiosity to select its own targets for its ChemCam instrument, then zap those rocks with its onboard laser instrument so that it can analyze the resulting gases, The Verge explained.

Before the software was uploaded last May, the rover was firing its laser an average of 256 times per day, the website said. From May 2016 to April 2017, however, that number spiked to 327 times per day, which will provide more information about the composition of Martian rocks.

AEGIS, which NASA confirms will also be used on its upcoming Mars 2020 mission, allows the rover to continue working when the ground team is unable to contact it, according to a new study published this week in the journal Science Robotics. The software, the agency said, is used nearly every time there is enough power to do so, and thus far, it is paying dividends.

“Time is precious on Mars, lead author Raymond Francis, lead system engineer for the program at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, explained in a statement. “AEGIS allows us to make use of time that otherwise wasn’t available because we were waiting for someone on Earth to make a decision.”

Target selection success rate has nearly quadrupled, says NASA

During its first year of service, AEGIS directed the ChemCam instrument 54 times, the authors reported in their study. This has enabled scientists to discover several interesting minerals, such as higher silica and chlorine quantities in nearby rocks, and helped them determine what course of action the spacecraft would take the following day, according to NASA.

“The goal is to provide more information for the science team,” said JPL’s Tara Estlin, study co-author and AEGIS team leader. “AEGIS has increased the total data coming from ChemCam by operating during times when the rover would otherwise just be waiting for a command.”

Before the new software was deployed, it would take ground-based engineers up to 20 minutes to send or receive signals to or from Mars, and that’s assuming that the Earth’s constant rotation did not prevent communication with the Red Planet at a given time. Not only does the program allow scientists to save time during the day, it allows Curiosity to continue working while they sleep.

“You’ve got all this science time after [each] drive, and often you have a few hours of daylight left, but Earth has not yet seen this new place that the rover is in,” Francis told The Verge. “And there’s no ability for people on the Earth to make decisions about what to target. That decision has to be made on Mars, and now we can make it on Mars. So that makes use of those hours that otherwise you wouldn’t have been able to do these kinds of measurements.”

Prior to AEGIS, rover operators were only around 24% successful at finding the kind of rocks they were searching for using a technique known as “blind targeting,” in which Curiosity would be instructed to fire its laser at a specific angle with no visual confirmation of what was there. In the year since the vehicle started selecting its own targets, however, the success rate increased to 93%, according to The Verge.


Image credit: NASA-JPL/Caltech