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NASA’s Curiosity rover is equipped with a scientific laser that can target rocks and pulverize them into the thin Martian air. The feature is fully automated and does not require human control.
The new software that allows Curiosity to automate its laser function had been developed by the NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena.
The plasma produced after the laser destroys the rock is analyzed and will offer information on the composition of the material without having to cut out a sample of the stone, which would take a lot of time.
Even if at this moment a team of scientists selects the rocks based on the images received from the rover’s camera, Curiosity is able to choose all by itself multiple targets per week.
Curiosity can choose its targets based on brightness and size. Once the machine detects an appropriate rock, it fires the laser and analyzes the resulting plasma.
The scientific laser can reach targets going as far as 7 meters away.
The rover had been trained to act autonomously in order to avoid delays that may occur in the communication between Mars and Earth and to overpass schedule incongruence between the device and the team of scientists back on our planet.
The scientific laser is part of the ChemCam instrument which is operated by a joint team of US and French astrophysicists.
So far, it had been used more than 350,000 times on 10,000 targets. The autonomy feature will allow Curiosity to analyze even more rocks than before.
Until now, the rover had to be stopped in front of the stone, and the scientific team back on Earth had to fine tune the pointing parameters. Only then Curiosity was capable of firing the laser.
The new software will allow the device to hit targets on its own, without any help from the scientific team. The robot will know to identify the rocks all by itself, it will find the proper location on the rock where it will point the laser, it will orientate the laser towards the stone, and it will hit the target all by itself, with no human intervention.
Curiosity had been on Mars for almost four years, and even if this month the device went into an automatic shutdown, it recovered entirely, and now it seems to be working very well.
The rover uses ChemCam and other instruments to gather information on the geological layers from Mount Sharp to decide the history of the planet and to detect if life had ever existed on Mars.
Image Source: Wikipedia