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NASA’s laser-shooting Mars rover can now make its own decisions

Curiosity Rover's tiny laser used to inspect more than 1,400 targets on Mars mission

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 23 July, 2016, 7:20am
UPDATED : Monday, 25 July, 2016, 1:16pm

Even though NASA launched the Mars Curiosity Rover back in 2012, the diligent spacecraft is still picking up new tricks.

Recently, NASA gifted its Martian explorer with the ability to pick and choose which space rocks to zap with its laser.

Using something called the Chemistry and Camera instrument (ChemCham), the rover picks a target and shoots laser pulses at it.

Over the course of the Curiosity Rover’s life on Mars, scientists have used its tiny laser to inspect more than 1,400 targets. This took more than 350,000 laser blasts in 10,000 different places.

By looking at the light signatures that different rocks produce when the laser hits, scientists can figure out which elements are in them.

“ChemCam data could show how Mars' environment went from potentially fertile to barren and unsuitable for biological life as we know it,” Popular Science reports.

Now, using the Autonomous Exploration for Gathering Increased Science software (AEFIS), the intrepid rover can make its own decisions about which rocks it wants to vaporise based on the size and colour of the rocks.

"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," according to robotics engineer Tara Estlin, the leader of AEGIS development at JPL.

But NASA hasn’t completely taken the training wheels off just yet. Most of the ChemCam’s targets are still selected by humans back on Earth.

One day, little Mars rover. One day.

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