At an average distance of 225 million kilometers (140 million miles), it takes about 15 minutes to send a signal to the Curiosity rover on Mars, and just as long to get a response. Thus, using humans to control it is pretty slow going.
That’s all changed in the past year though. Curiosity has become more autonomous than ever before, using new artificial intelligence software to vaporize and study rocks all by itself. It’s probably not self-aware just yet, but hey, that’s basically the next step right?
The software is called Autonomous Exploration for Gathering Increased Science (AEGIS). A paper in Science: Robotics describes how the rover has been using AEGIS since May 2016. On 54 occasions, the software used Curioisty’s ChemCam instrument, with most of those involving firing a laser at a rock to study the gas that burned off and work out what the rock was made of.
"Time is precious on Mars," lead author Raymond Francis of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, said in a statement. "AEGIS allows us to make use of time that otherwise wasn't available because we were waiting for someone on Earth to make a decision."
Using AEGIS has led to some interesting discoveries. Scientists have found high quantities of chlorine and silica in nearby rocks, for example, which helped them decide what science the rover should do next. Curiosity’s successor, the Mars 2020 rover, will also be using AEGIS.
The software can be programmed to look for specific types of rock in terms of color, shape, and size. AEGIS can also fine-tune investigations planned by the humans back on Earth, so that they have a better chance of hitting a target they’re after.
The biggest benefit of AEGIS is that it means the rover can do science while it’s waiting for commands. The team on Earth are still responsible for deciding where to drive the rover next, but while they deliberate, the rover is busy performing its own science on the surface.
Before AEGIS was implemented, Curiosity would just blindly fire its laser at the ground in the hope of hitting a rock. About half the time, it would just hit soil, which provided useful data in its own right, but rocks are more interesting to scientists.
Yes, we had a robot randomly attacking the surface of another planet. Now we’ve got a robot that’s getting better at exploring another planet by itself. It might not be self-aware yet, but hopefully we’ve avoided accidentally starting a war with the Martians.