Curiosity Rover Gets Software Upgrade, Its Third Since Initial Mars Landing

By Ajit Jha on December 24, 2013 11:28 AM EST

Dents in the Curiosity Rover Wheel
The left-front wheel of NASA's Curiosity Mars rover shows dents and holes in this image taken during the 469th Martian day, or sol, of the rover's work on Mars (Photo: JPL/NASA)

The Curiosity Rover, the backbone of NASA's Mars program, needed yet another fix-up last week — the third time since its launch a year ago.

According to reports from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) at La Canada Flintridge, Cali., Curiosity Rover's software was upgraded as the robot headed towards Mt. Sharp, a three-mile high mound in the middle of Gale Crater on Mars. This upgrade (known as version 11) is the third since August 22, 2012 when the rover first touched down on the Gale Crater. The first upgrade was a sort of brain transplant to replace flight mode software with more suitable programming for hoofing it on wheels. The latest software upgrade will improve Curiosity's ability to use its robotic arm, which will prove especially useful when scaling the slopes of Mt. Sharp.

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However, unlike software, it is not possible to fix Curiosity's hardware remotely. So, Curiosity's mission team at JPL was alarmed when the rover's Mars Hand Lens Imager beamed back images on Nov. 30 showing dents and holes in Curiosity's left front wheel. The increased wear and tear in the rover's thin aluminum wheel in recent years could be attributed to the terrain riddled with sharp rocks.    

The wheels are sturdy enough to sustain considerable damage without the rover's impaired ability to drive, according to Jim Erickson, Mars Science Laboratory project manager. The team would, however, like to study the impact of this terrain on the wheels, so as to plan future drives, he said.  The good news is that now that the software is fixed, Curiosity will continue to be able to effectively use its robotic arm to take photographs of its own wheels for the JPL to examine them.

The fact that the upgrade took a whole week to complete may sound like a long time. But it should not be surprising considering that updates happen across an astronomical distance of 130 million miles, while each interaction takes around half an hour for the two way message - about 15 minutes to send a signal and about the same time to receive a response. At this rate, a single update can take days to execute even if each task is completed promptly by the onboard computer.    

The process was complicated, yet it was made safer because a backup system was ready to restore the software back to its last state, if anything went wrong. The new version of the software was tested on the primary computer before its installation. Once, everything was checked for perfection, the backup was eventually replaced.  

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