NASA’s Mars Curiosity Rover is now able to able to autonomously select targets such as rocks for its laser spectrometer test, thanks to a new software update. This marks the first time a rover on any planetary mission is able to singlehandedly decide which targets to select.
The software was developed at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, in Pasadena, California. Specifically, it allows Curiosity to frequently choose multiple targets every week for a laser as well as a camera that when combined form the rover’s Chemistry and Camera (ChemCam) instrument. Until now, scientists back on Earth were discussing and choosing what rocks and soils to target with the ChemCam.
The autonomous targeting offers Curiosity a new capability that is helpful when NASA encounters certain technical difficulties. According to, robotics engineer, Tara Estlin:
“This autonomy is particularly useful at times when getting the science team in the loop is difficult; or when the schedules of Earth, Mars and spacecraft activities lead to delays in sharing information between the planets.”
Over the course of Curiosity’s almost four years on the red planet, scientists using the ChemCam were able to inspect over 1, 400 targets by analyzing the color spectrum the laser generated when it zapped something. Overall, there have been more than 350,000 laser shots at around 10,000 points in all.
Other than all the sightseeing scientists have done through Curiosity, its ChemCam enables the identification of chemical compositions of targets, eliminating the need to bring back samples for a similar analysis.
In order for the Curiosity rover to select a target autonomously, the software’s analysis of images uses various adjustable criteria chosen by scientists like identifying rocks by size, color, and brightness. The relevant criteria can be changed depending on the surroundings and the scientific goals of measurements.
“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.
Though this is not the most impressive or exciting news regarding the Curiosity Rover, any development that can advance humanity’s capacity to explore and better understand Mars is always welcomed.
How excited are you about Curiosity’s new capabilities?
Image source: Wikipedia