NASA’s Mars rover Curiosity is changing its mind – or rather, NASA is changing Curiosity’s mind for it. The 4X4-sized robot explorer is spending its first weekend on the Red Planet installing a major software update that NASA calls a “brain transplant.” This new software replaces that which Curiosity ran while in transit from Earth and will prepare the rover for exploring the Martian surface.
The new software was uploaded to Curiosity while it was en route to Mars. Now that the rover has landed, the software used to control the spacecraft while in flight is being removed from the rover’s two computers and the new programming installed. This new software will tell Curiosity how to navigate, how to avoid obstacles and how to use its robotic arm.
"We designed the mission from the start to be able to upgrade the software as needed for different phases of the mission," said Ben Cichy of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, chief software engineer for the Mars Science Laboratory mission. "The flight software version Curiosity currently is using was really focused on landing the vehicle. It includes many capabilities we just don't need any more. It gives us basic capabilities for operating the rover on the surface, but we have planned all along to switch over after landing to a version of flight software that is really optimized for surface operations."
Last Sunday, Curiosity landed on Mars in a dramatic maneuver involving an aerodynamic heat shield and a sky crane rocket cradle that dropped Curiosity to the ground before flying away. The nuclear powered rover is the largest lander ever sent to Mars and is spending the first three weeks of its two-year mission sending back high-resolution images while undergoing system checks.
Once the new software is installed and the system checks are completed, Curiosity will move out and begin its task of exploring the interior of Gale Crater, where it is looking for signs that life may once have existed or still does.