spaceSpace and Physics

Curiosity Can Now Zap Rocks On Mars By Itself


Jonathan O'Callaghan

Senior Staff Writer

Artist's impression of Curiosity preparing to enslave humanity. NASA/JPL-Caltech

God help us all. The Curiosity rover on Mars has now become self-aware, and is destroying rocks as it makes its way around the planet, surely with one eye on eventually conquering Earth.

Or, in slightly less doomsday terms, NASA has given Curiosity the ability to zap and analyze rocks on its own with its onboard laser system. Previously, all targets were selected by humans, but given how fast and often Curiosity can do these analyses, it makes sense for it to do them itself, enabling it to work even when we’re not sending new commands. This is now possible thanks to software called AEGIS – Autonomous Exploration for Gathering Increased Science.


"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 robotics engineer Tara Estlin, the leader of AEGIS development at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, in a statement.

In fact, you might be surprised to learn that since Curiosity landed on Mars in August 2012, it has fired its laser 350,000 times, inspecting 1,400 different rocks on the ground. It does this by using a mini-telescope to analyze the resulting plasma when its laser zaps a rock, noting the composition of the rock.

Shown is an example of how Curiosity selects targets to study. NASA/JPL-Caltech/LANL/CNES/IRAP/LPGNantes/CNRS/IAS

This laser is called ChemCam, and each pulse packs a million watts of power (comparable to the power output of a fighter jet), but fires for just five billionths of a second. By our rough calculations, that’s approximately equal to the acoustic energy of a whisper. This is enough, though, to turn solid rock into plasma. ChemCam also takes high-resolution imagery of the targets.


It is able to do this from a distance of up to 7 meters (23 feet) from a target, so it has quite a large range to work in. And now that it is automated, the rover can further its groundbreaking science in Gale Crater, where it has already discovered clear signs of ancient water, and found hints of a once-habitable environment.

Most of the rover's other operations, including deciding where to drive to next, will still be decided by its human operators on Earth. But it’s surely only a matter of time before the rover breaks free of its imperialist rulers and claims the Red Planet for robotkind, perhaps with the help of fellow Mars rover Opportunity. Or something.


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