There’s a robot on Mars with lasers… and it gets to choose its own victims. This isn’t a science fiction story, and don’t worry, that robot doesn’t want to kill humans. The robot in question is the Curiosity Mars rover, which has been cruising around Mars and taking all kinds of samples for several years now. One of it’s many tools is called ChemCam, which is a laser system mounted on the top of its mast. ChemCam can zap rocks to find out their chemical composition.
This is an incredibly useful tool because it allows us to learn a lot more about those rocks than photos would ever tell us. For the most part, the rocks Curiosity shoots are chosen by scientists back here on Earth, based on what looks interesting from here. But they’ve recently uploaded some new software, called AEGIS, which lets Curiosity identify and target some rocks on its own. There are quite a few benefits of this.
For one, there isn’t always somebody on staff to keep an eye on Curiosity in case it stops by some compelling rocks. As such, there are certainly times when the rover wouldn’t be taking those kinds of samples, and that’s inefficient. No scientist wants to have too little data when they can possibly have too much, least of all NASA.
Another benefit is accuracy and time management. When scientists picked rocks in the past, they’d have to take several shots at them to make sure they hit them with the ChemCam laser. But the AEGIS system vastly improves Curiosity’s aim. That’s useful when it’s choosing its own targets, but it also helps when we’re picking those targets. With the AEGIS system, once a rock is chosen as a target (regardless of who is choosing it) the laser can hit it right on target the first time, and then move onto other samples more quickly.