NASA has been hard at work on a space program initiative involving Mars exploration literally for decades. From satellite orbits to actual landings, our nearest viable neighbor for sustaining life has been the subject of a lot of intense–and expensive–effort. Once NASA was able to actually send Mars landers to the surface, the planet became, as one scientist put it, “a robot graveyard.”
The reason for the graveyard imagery was from multiple previous attempts at landing on the surface and deploying an undamaged robot, a mission which didn’t always succeed. The first series of rovers that provided the intended feedback were back in the early part of this century, with the successful launch of two rovers, Spirit and Opportunity. Those robots, intended to gather data and send it back for a period of only a few months after traveling about 600 meters, actually proved to be much hardier than NASA predicted. Their mission continued for years, basically as long as their batteries and solar panels held out; while Spirit succumbed to freezing temperatures and has not been heard from since 2010, Opportunity is still at work.
But the latest Mars rover, Curiosity, is not only at work on the planet’s surface, it came with a whole host of upgrades based off of lessons learned from the previous rovers and on new technology that NASA developed between the two different missions. Curiosity has some fun features, like a laser knife and the ability to tweet from its own Twitter account, but also the ability to receives software updates that can change its entire mission focus.
The recent AEGIS update–which stands for Autonomous Exploration for Gathering Increased Science–has built on a previous update, both of which were designed to turn Curiosity into a more self-sufficient, autonomous robot. It takes ten minutes for every single command to reach the rover, so NASA has now designed it to make more decisions on its own. Previous updates have allowed Curiosity to make vehicular and navigation directions on its own, but this one will give the robot more decision-making ability when it comes to scientific decisions, like which samples to gather and how to go about taking data.