NASA's Curiosity rover is known for its ability to zap rocks from the Martian soil with a laser for chemical analysis along with its ability to sing "Happy Birthday' to itself annually. This time around, the space agency announced that it was given an update — it can now select the rock it wants to zap on its own.
Curiosity works by hitting its target with a tiny pulse and the gas produced is examined by a spectrometer. It records the color wavelength of the plasma produced then scientists are able to use the data to identify the chemicals present. Even with the need for scientists to choose each target individually, Curiosity tested 1,400 targets in 10,000 different locations.
To address some concerns with the necessity for constant human programming, NASA updated the rover with software called Autonomous Exploration for Gathering Increased Science or AEGIS to let Curiosity choose its own specimen. The rover has its own set of cameras it will be using to identify its target based on the criteria set by the scientists handling it. Some parameters that may be included are size and brightness.
NASA robotics engineer Tara Estlin said, in a press statement, "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."
Scientists from NASA will technically still control Curiosity but in some ways it can now choose where to point its laser. Scientists back on Earth have to still be the ones to pull the trigger.