Laser-targeting A.I. Yields More Mars Science

Artificial intelligence is changing how we study Mars. A.I. software on NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover has helped it zap dozens of laser targets on the Red Planet this past year, becoming a frequent science tool when the ground team was out of contact with the spacecraft. This same software has proven useful enough that it’s already scheduled for NASA’s upcoming mission, Mars 2020. A new paper in Science: Robotics looks at how the software has performed since rolling out to Curiosity’s science team in May 2016. The AEGIS software, or Autonomous Exploration for Gathering Increased Science, has been used to direct Curiosity’s ChemCam instrument 54 times since then. It’s used on almost every drive when the power resources are available for it, according to the paper’s authors. The vast majority of those uses involved selecting targets to zap with ChemCam’s laser, which vaporizes small amounts of rock or soil and studies the gas that burns off. Spectrographic analysis of this gas can reveal the elements that make up each laser target. AEGIS allows the rover to get more science done while Curiosity’s human controllers are out of contact. Each day, they program a list of commands for it to execute based on the previous day’s images and data. If those commands include a drive, the rover may reach new surroundings several hours before it is able to receive new instructions. AEGIS allows it to autonomously zap rocks that scientists may want to investigate later.”

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