Sciency Words: Science Autonomy

Today’s post is part of a special series here on Planet Pailly called Sciency Words. Each week, we take a closer look at an interesting science or science-related term to help us expand our scientific vocabularies together. Today’s term is:


The planet Mars now has its own super villain. In 2016, NASA uploaded new software to the Curiosity rover, giving it a program called AEGIS (Automated Exploration for Gathering Increased Science). Curiosity was already equipped with a high powered laser. Thanks to AEGIS, the rover is now free to use it with or without the input of humans back on Earth.

To quote this article from the Planetary Society:

AEGIS is an example of what we call “science autonomy’, where the spacecraft (the rover in this case) can make decisions on its own about scientific measurements and data—choosing which measurements to make, or having made them, which to transmit to Earth. This is distinct from autonomy in navigation, or in managing onboard systems—both of which Curiosity can also do.

Okay, in all seriousness, I think this is a great idea. One of the biggest frustrations about robotic space exploration is all the time wasted transmitting data back and forth across the Solar System. Due to speed-of-light delays, it can take many minutes, or even hours, to tell a rover what to do and then receive confirmation that the rover has done its job.

With regard to Curiosity’s laser, that instrument is used to vaporize Martian rocks. The resulting rock vapor is then spectroscopically analyzed to identify the rock’s chemical composition. Letting Curiosity do that sort of science on its own has, according to that Planetary Scociety article, saved NASA from a lot of wasted time and effort.

Even so, I can’t help but feel like, if we lived in a comic book universe, this science autonomy thing would be a very, very bad idea. Especially when laser are involved.

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