Curiosity rover can now choose some targets autonomously

Now that the Curiosity rover has been cruising around on the surface of Mars for a long time, NASA is giving the machine the ability to choose some of its own targets for more study. Curiosity is now able to select rocks to target its laser spectrometer on autonomously. NASA says that this is the first time that an instrument of this kind has been autonomously operated on any robotic planetary mission.

The camera gained its autonomous abilities thanks to software developed by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. Using the new software Curiosity is now able to choose multiple targets each week for the laser and telescopic camera that are components of the Curiosity Chemistry and Camera (ChemCam) instrument.

The team scientists are still choosing most of the targets for the instrument as they inspect the rocks and soil that are seen in the images sent back to Earth. ChemCam is a very important instrument on the rover and has inspected multiple points on over 1400 targets so far. The inspection is performed by detecting the color spectrum of plasmas generated when laser pulses hit a target rock.

The instrument performed over 350,000 total laser shots at about 10,000 points in all. AEGIS (Autonomous Exploration for Gathering Increased Science) software has been used previously on the Opportunity rover, but on a less frequent basis. The software analyzes images and uses adjustable criteria that is specified by scientists to identify targets and study them.

"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. "AEGIS enables these targets to be hit on the first try by automatically identifying them and calculating a pointing that will center a ChemCam measurement on the target."