A software update has recently enabled NASA’s Curiosity rover to select and analyze science targets all on its own. NASA engineers said that the upgrade is part of a larger plan to make the robotic Mars explorer less dependent on ground control.
Tara Estlin, head of the team that worked on the software update at JPL’s Autonomous Exploration for Gathering Increased Science (AEGIS), explained that the machine’s new ability will come in handy especially when communications are weak.
Estlin also believes that the new feature could speed things up and make them more efficient. The new system is already used by another of the NASA’s Mars rovers, Opportunity, which can now autonomously select what targets to take a picture of.
In Curiosity’s case, things are more complex. The software update will allow it to use its ChemCam without the need of human intervention. ChemCam is a laser-based tool that can analyze the chemical makeup of rocks and other science targets just by their color spectrum.
Since August 2012, when it landed on the Martian surface, Curiosity has analyzed over 1,400 rock samples and miscellaneous objects. However, with the new ability scientists hope to make the rover more productive.
Engineers explained that AEGIS first sifts through the imagery caught by the rover’s navigational camera and next it picks an interesting target and moves the ChemCam in that direction. And this happens before researchers on Earth get to have look at the images.
The new system can also focus on one particular science object and analyze it with greater accuracy. For instance, the ChemCam can perform an analysis on objects located 23 feet away from the robotic explorer.
Scientists currently no longer need to dig into Curiosity’s imagery and select a target that seems worthy of observation. Instead, they only have to insert some parameters into the rover’s computer system and let the robot handle the rest.
Nevertheless, the ChemCam won’t be scanning science objects 24/7. Scientists will decide when to use it and for how long. Curiosity is still being controlled from ground when it is moving. AEGIS comes into play only when the robotic rover rests.
Olivier Gasnault, a ChemCam specialist at Research Institute of Astrophysics and Planetology in France, explained that the new software doesn’t interfere with the current mode, but it complements it. Gasnault added that the feature is useful when interaction with researchers on Earth is limited.
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