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By Andrew Follett

NASA’s Curiosity Mars Rover uses extremely advanced software that allows it to independently locate individual rocks for study without human intervention, scientists working on the project told Space.com Wednesday.

A software update called Autonomous Exploration for Gathering Increased Science (AEGIS) gave the Curiosity rover a degree of artificial intelligence, and is the first time artificial intelligence had been tried on a remote probe.

AEGIS works by using two of the rover’s cameras to recognize the edges of objects. On Mars, if the edges of objects connect within the frame of the camera, that means there’s a rock there.

“If you find edges that close into a loop you’ve found an object and on Mars that’s usually a rock,” Raymond Francis, lead system engineer for the deployment of the artificial intelligence program, told Space.com.

AEGIS also looks at the relative brightness of objects seen by the cameras, which enables it to identify rocks. Curiosity can search for rocks even when not in contact with  its human controllers, instead of waiting for instructions from NASA.

This independence is vital to NASA. It can take up to 24 minutes to send a signal between Earth and Mars, so the artificial intelligence can greatly simplify rover operations. Additionally, NASA can’t always send a signal to Curiosity due to the way Mars rotates.

“We can’t be in constant contact with the rover — Mars rotates and when [Curiosity is] on the far side we can’t get in touch with it,” Francis said. “The farther you go in the solar system, the longer the light time delay, the more decisions need to be made on the spot.”

The autonomy AEGIS grants Curiosity is so useful to NASA that it will likely become a fixture for future robotic missions.

Curiosity is vital to NASA’s mission of determining if life exists or could have ever existed on the Red Planet.

Large parts of Mars were probably capable of supporting life for over 100 million years, observations from Curiosity published in December concluded. The rover has even found organic material “all over” the Red Planet.

Curiosity observed 650 feet of rocks laid down over hundreds of millions of years and found that Mars’ environment changed considerably over its geologic history, but it would have been possible for life to form or survive.

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