A rose may be just a rose, but a rock isn?t just a rock. A computer scientist/geologist has combined both fields to create an instrument for space exploration that can analyze rocks in situ on distant cosmic bodies.

Learning from the marvelous, but limited abilities of the Mars Curiosity scientific mission, researchers at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California went about creating a smart camera. Instead of clicking an image and sending it more than 300 million miles back to Earth for analysis, their camera includes a brain of its own.

Slower than a 3G network, transmissions of images take 20 minutes to reach Earth from Mars

The new camera can determine the make up of a rock it sees and decide whether its location is worth exploring or not. This saves about 40 minutes in transmission time from Mars to Earth and back whereby images are sent from Curiosity to NASA for analysis resulting in instructions sent back to the land rover. The data transfer moves 250 times slower than a 3G cell phone network.

California?s Mojave Desert, a facsimile of the Martian landscape, is the test ground for JPL?s TextureCam

Kiri Wagstaff lead the project that developed the TextureCam, a two lens camera that takes 3D images and analyzes them in its own dedicated processor thereby freeing the Rover?s processor to carry out other tasks. The Mojave Desert in Southern California, with a landscape not unlike the planet Curiosity is now exploring sans cactus, is used as a test lab for the new device.

More information can be found in Geophysical Research Letters, a publication of the American Geophysical Union.