NASA has given its Mars rover Curiosity the ability to “decide” which rocks to zap with its laser in the recent AEGIS software update.

Curiosity has been given more and more autonomy on the Red Planet over the past few years. It used to be humans were in the driver’s seat, dictating every move. But engineers seem to be giving Curiosity the ability to call the shots. In a past update, NASA gave the rover an update which turned it into an autonomous vehicle. NASA, now, more or less, tells Curiosity "we want you to go over that way and end up at a specific place, but you can figure out for yourself how to get there."

Robot probes, like Curiosity, will be the foundation of deeper planetary exploration to Mars and beyond. Autonomous robots will be a huge factor in helping us achieve these exploratory goals. Think about it this way: sending a command to a robot on Mars takes around 10 minutes.

"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 Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL).

This update is not only speeding up the way researchers gather information. Past updates were about navigation, this one allows Curiosity to really let loose on the Martian planet in a way never seen before. “This is a new kind of thing in some ways because it’s science autonomy where it’s making decisions actually about science measurements, and not just about navigation or housekeeping,” Raymond Francis, a scientific applications software engineer at JPL, told the LA Times.

The AEGIS update will allow Curiosity to go further and researchers to learn more about our neighboring planet. So, we can hopefully get there sometime soon.

NASA could put humans in orbit around Mars in the year 2033 – 2033 is not arbitrary,” says Bill Nye.


Photo Credit: NASA JPL