NASA Curiosity Rover Gains Ability To Autonomously Blast Martian Rocks With Lasers

The Curiosity Mars rover now has a license to shoot at will -- the rover can now autonomously target rocks without human permission or control. Curiosity uses ChemCam, a software developed at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California. It is designed to study the chemical makeup of rocks and soil on Mars. It zaps rocks with a laser and then analyzes the gases that are released from the impact.

ChemCam has fired more than 350,000 lasers at about 10,000 points since landing on Mars in 2012.


ChemCam is now accompanied by Autonomous Exploration for Gathering Increased Science or AEGIS. AEGIS and has been used on the Curiosity before, but in a lesser capacity. .

Up until now, researchers have told Curiosity where to shoot based on images of rocks and soil sent over by the rover. Curiosity has now been equipped with AEGIS, which analyzes images from its navigation camera. It uses adjustable criteria specified by scientists, such as size or brightness. The criteria can be changed depending on the rover's surroundings or plans from Earth. If the AEGIS detects something worthy of investigation, it can direct ChemCam to zap the target without human confirmation.


This new technology will enable Curiosity to analyze more rocks more quickly, because it will not need to send images first back to Earth. It could also be useful if Mars is out of communication with Earth, or if Mars orbiters are unable to send messages to the rover.

Tara Estlin, a robotics engineer from AEGIS, remarked, “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.”