Curiosity. An apt name for an explorer of the final frontier. Now, NASA’s rover can sate its own curiosity. Thanks to software (Autonomous Exploration for Gathering Increased Science, or AEGIS) developed at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Curiosity can select rock targets for its laser spectrometer on its own.

It won’t be used all the time. The Curiosity team won’t have to worry about the rover going off on some tangent on its own. Tara Estlin, a robotics engineer at JPL, explains when the rover will take advantage of the AEGIS software.

“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 Estlin.

Did You Know: This isn’t the first time NASA used AEGIS software. Mars rover Opportunity took advantage of it to determine if additional observations of rocks were needed. The rover would examine images of rocks taken with a wide-angle camera. If they met certain criteria, like a rounded shape or particular color, Opportunity would focus its narrower-angle camera and take multiple images. At the time, Estlin described it as “a way to get some bonus science.”

Curiosity goes a bit further. It can autonomously select targets for the laser and telescopic camera of its ChemCam instrument. Just like Opportunity, the Curiosity rover selects rocks based on the software’s analysis of images. The similarities between the two rovers stop here. AEGIS can go a step further on Curiosity and control the laser.

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Ground operators won’t have to painstakingly tweak the rover’s aim. “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,” says Estlin.

AEGIS should make life easier for the Opportunity team.

Here’s an example of what a rock looks like on Mars with the NavCam. And then the follow-up observation by ChemCam of the rock with the yellow dot on it.

Mars Curiosity ChemCam

After a short laser burst, ChemCam’s spectrometers get to work recording the wavelengths seen as the laser fires. The information gathered here is used to figure out the chemical compositions of the rock or soil sample being studied. ChemCam can analyze the composition of a rock or soil target from more than 23 feet away.

Olivier Gasnault, the ChemCam Science Operation Lead, points out that AEGIS, “does not replace an existing mode, but complements it.”

Today, Curiosity continues its trek up the lower portion of Mount Sharp. Its goal? Investigate evidence about how and when ancient Mars went from a wetter world to the arid landscape we see today.

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