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NASA’s Mars rover Curiosity getting "brain transplant"

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August 11, 2012

Gale Crater's rim as sen from Curiosity (Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS)

Gale Crater's rim as sen from Curiosity (Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS)

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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.

Source: NASA

About the Author
David Szondy David Szondy is a freelance writer based in Monroe, Washington. An award-winning playwright, he has contributed to Charged and iQ magazine and is the author of the website Tales of Future Past.   All articles by David Szondy
8 Comments

Thanks David, excellent article

Bill Bennett
12th August, 2012 @ 07:46 pm PDT

strange, why not install the functionality of that Operating System before launch?

Zain Hoosen
13th August, 2012 @ 01:29 am PDT

Is the OS so bloated it can't all fit into the hard drive, and has to be uploaded piecewise?

MrGadget
13th August, 2012 @ 09:28 am PDT

@Zain Hoosen

My 2 cents on the matter: either memory space and computer calculation abilities; or trying to avoid the failure of one part of the program to compromise the rest of them. Separating functions is proably the best way to avoid catastrophic failure!

Forest Fab
13th August, 2012 @ 09:59 am PDT

i'm sure "bloated" is the wrong word here. i don't think they installed VZ navigator or NFS 2049 or something. I did HEAR that since the early development of this creature, it was fitted with a decent size harddrive... like 4 GB. And living by the mantra, if it ain't broke don't fix it, they haven't increased its size despite the simplicity/availability. I think for something like this, reliability > size.

Mikey Mensinger
13th August, 2012 @ 10:36 am PDT

Given that it is a simi-autonomous robot and taking into account for the scope of it's mission I'd say the software is probably huge. Also the fact that this is a Robot Operating System not a disk operating system needs to be considered.

Storage medium for a space vehicle is not as simple as a hard drive for your desktop or laptop. It has to be emp, radiation and vibration/shock hardened so it is probably far fewer bytes of storage than would be expected of a terrestrial vehicle.

Not to mention the fact that extra functions can sometimes conflict with instructructions so it's better to remove any uneeded code to make it more stable.

IMHO this is a perfectly rational choice to make to optimize the rover for it's mission.

Joel Joines
13th August, 2012 @ 10:36 am PDT

duh.. how long was the flight ? this is why it need the update some of these take years to get to their destination.

Jay Finke
13th August, 2012 @ 11:50 am PDT

Why spend time developing the software for land based operations if your not sure it was ever going to make it! quite a streamlined approach, makes sense.

Chris Flynn
21st August, 2012 @ 11:32 am PDT
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