The Mars Curiosity rover is firing its lasers

The Mars Curiosity rover is firing its lasers

No, it's not to fight Martians -- scientists are using it for scientific purposes, allowing the rover to automatically detect interesting rock and soil samples.

The Mars Curiosity rover just pulled off an important trick: it can fire lasers autonomously. That would mark the first time a robot planetary mission has been able to do this, and it’s a big deal because now Curiosity is capable of autonomously targeting rocks and soil that could be of interest to scientists, firing a laser and pointing its camera at the objects using the rover’s ChemCam and then send that data back to Earth.

NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California has been having to select samples manually, combing through images taken by Curiosity for something that looks of interest and then directing the ChemCam to take a closer look. While scientists will still continue to do things this way most of the time, the autonomous laser essentially gives them another set of eyes — and a set of eyes that is actually on the Red Planet, according to a NASA statement.

The laser makes use of the Autonomous Exploration for Gathering Increased Science (AEGIS) software, which is capable of using a set of criteria to analyze images taken from up to 23 feet away. It will be useful to a science team that has a lot on its plate.

“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,” said robotics engineer Tara Estlin, the leader of AEGIS development at JPL.

“AEGIS brings an extra opportunity to use ChemCam, to do more, when the interaction with scientists is limited,” said ChemCam Science Operation Lead Olivier Gasnault, at the Research Institute in Astrophysics and Planetology (IRAP), of France’s National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS) and the University of Toulouse, France. “It does not replace an existing mode, but complements it.”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,” said robotics engineer Tara Estlin, the leader of AEGIS development at JPL.

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