Laser 'Autonomous Target Selection' Now Available To Curiosity Rover

Science fiction fans cringed just a little upon learning that NASA's Mars Curiosity Rover robot now has laser-based "autonomous target selection" as one of its enhanced functionality.

It seems especially dubious given that lonely little Curiosity is celebrating a sad 4th birthday on Mars this week.


(Happy Lonely Birthday, Curiosity.)

I mean really, is this the sort of capability you want to give a lonely robot?

Actually, of course, it's a scientific instrument feature:

Using software developed at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California, Curiosity is now frequently choosing multiple targets per week for a laser and a telescopic camera that are parts of the rover's Chemistry and Camera (ChemCam) instrument. Most ChemCam targets are still selected by scientists discussing rocks or soil seen in images the rover has sent to Earth, but the autonomous targeting adds a new capability.

During Curiosity's nearly four years on Mars, ChemCam has inspected multiple points on more than 1,400 targets by detecting the color spectrum of plasmas generated when laser pulses zap a target -- more than 350,000 total laser shots at about 10,000 points in all. ChemCam's spectrometers record the wavelengths seen through a telescope while the laser is firing. This information enables scientists to identify the chemical compositions of the targets. Through the same telescope, the instrument takes images that are of the highest resolution available from the rover's mast.

AEGIS software, for Autonomous Exploration for Gathering Increased Science, had previously been used on NASA's Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity, though less frequently and for a different type of instrument. That rover uses the software to analyze images from a wide-angle camera as the basis for autonomously selecting rocks to photograph with a narrower-angle camera. Development work on AEGIS won a NASA Software of the Year Award in 2011.

Readers are free to choose their own tale of laser autonomy gone awry; tweet to @Technovelgy if you have any favorites.

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