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NASA's Curiosity Rover now decides which Mars rocks to shoot all by itself

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It’s good to remember, sometimes, that despite the hell and misery that is the year 2016, we still have a robot on Mars that shoots rocks with a laser and sings ‘Happy Birthday’ to itself every year. I’m talking, of course, about NASA’s Curiosity rover, which this week was given a major update by the space agency: the ability to select which rocks it zaps on the Martian surface.

All this zapping is very scientific of course. The Curiosity rover uses its laser to analyze the chemical composition of rocks and soil — hitting the target with a tiny pulse, and then scrutinizing the gas produced using a spectrometer. This tool records the color wavelength of the plasma generated by the laser shots, and from this, scientists can determine what chemicals are present. The laser itself is tiny, but Curiosity’s handlers have wielded it unsparingly: zapping some 1,400 targets in 10,000 places with more than 350,000 individual shots.

Letting curiosity pick the targets is useful when the science team can’t get in touch

Previously, every target had to be first selected by a scientist back on Earth, but now, NASA is using a piece of software known as AEGIS (that stands for “Autonomous Exploration for Gathering Increased Science”) to let Curiosity pick its own victims. The rover will use its multiple on-board cameras to identify its targets, based on criteria set in advance by the bot’s handlers. These parameters could include a target’s rocks size, or it’s reflectivity, for example.

“This autonomy is particularly useful at times when getting the science team in the loop is difficult or impossible,” said NASA robotics engineer Tara Estlin in a press statement. “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.” It seems that NASA’s scientists still have to be the ones to actually pull the trigger, but at least Curiosity is now lining up — if not calling — the shots.

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