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NASA's Mars Curiosity Rover Decides Which Martian Rocks To Study Without Human Input

NASA's Mars Curiosity rover has been conducting studies on the Martian surface with more independence than before. Engineers now give the $2.6 billion space robot more freedom to make its own decisions when gathering data and conducting analyses on the Red Planet, which helps save time and energy.

AEGIS: Autonomous System Helps Curiosity Conduct Independent Rock Analyses On Mars

While space robots have long been capable of controlling some onboard systems such as regulating the use of power, artificial intelligence now give them the ability to collect and analyze the data they gather and then decide which info to send back to planet Earth without human input.

Since May 2016, the U.S. space agency has been testing out the autonomous system dubbed AEGIS, which stands for Autonomous Exploration for Gathering Increased Science, on the Curiosity rover.

A new report revealed the AEGIS is working well and may even help accelerate scientific discoveries.

About 21,000 lines of code that make up AEGIS were added to Curiosity's flight software in late 2015. AEGIS allows Curiosity to control use of ChemCam, an instrument that identifies the chemical compositions of rocks by blasting them with a laser and analyzing the resulting gases.

During the deployment of the new software between May 2016 and April 2017, Curiosity blasted rocks with laser and conducted analyses 52 times after moving to a new spot.

AEGIS first picks out interesting-looking rocks and then tells the ChemCam to zap its lasers at the rocks to vaporize these objects and analyze their compositions. AEGIS can recognize bedrocks that scientists are interested in because these contain clues into the past ability of Mars to support life.

"Right now Mars is entirely inhabited by robots and one of them is artificially intelligent enough to make its own decisions about what to zap with its laser," said Raymond Francis from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and member of the AEGIS software team.

Autonomous System Helps Reduce Lost Time On The Mission

NASA controllers often program Curiosity to use the autonomous system after it drives to a new spot. AEGIS allows Curiosity to take science measurement while data are being sent to Earth and the rover is waiting for orders from controllers, processes that can take a while given the distance between Earth and the Red Planet. In 93 percent of the time, the autonomous system selects the same target that a human would have chosen sans the hour or so delay.

"The system has substantially reduced lost time on the mission and markedly increased the pace of data collection with ChemCam. AEGIS autonomy has rapidly been adopted as an exploration tool by the mission scientists and has influenced their strategy for exploring the rover's environment," reported Francis and colleagues in the journal Science Robotics on June 21.

It only takes up to 105 seconds to target and zap rocks and analyze the findings, so Curiosity is already done when NASA relays new instructions. Mission team members, however, opt not to run AEGIS if the batteries of the rover are running low.

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