NASA Curiosity Mars Rover Software Upgrade a Success

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It’s not every day that a successful software upgrade makes headlines or warrants a congratulatory phone call from the President of the United States. What type of project generated a Hail from the Chief?

After landing on Mars on August 6, 2012, NASA's Mars rover Curiosity spent its first weekend on the Red Planet successfully transitioning to software better suited for tasks Curiosity will undertake as part of a two-year mission to investigate whether conditions on Mars have been favorable for microbial life.

NASA scientists dubbed the software upgrade a "brain transplant." A key capability in the software upgrade is image processing to check for obstacles, which allows for longer drives by giving the rover more autonomy to identify and avoid potential hazards, and drive along a safe path the rover identifies. Other new capabilities facilitate use of the tools at the end of the rover's robotic arm.

Upgrading the Curiosity’s software after successfully reaching Mars allowed scientists to align the software’s capabilities with the current tasks the rover faces.

"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, Calif., 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."

The Curiosity’s hardware is deemed “relatively modest” as reported by Wired: “But under the hood, the interplanetary explorer is powered by a pair of computers built by BAE Systems. They’re called RAD750s. And it turns out that the radiation hardening that they need to operate on Mars isn’t all that different from the protection that some of today’s largest supercomputers need to keep chugging along.”

The adventures of NASA's Curiosity rover on Mars is definitely a high profile project. Curiosity even has its own Twitter handle—@MarsCuriosity—that has gained more than one million (and rising) followers, including Britney Spears, who shared a Twitter exchange:

“So @MarsCuriosity... does Mars look the same as it did in 2000?  (Spears linked to her 2000 music video "Oops! ... I Did It Again" which took place on fictional Mars.)

"@britneyspears Hey Brit Brit. Mars is still looking good," reads a post on Curiosity's official Twitter page. "Maybe someday an astronaut will bring me a gift, too. Drill bits crossed :)"

For more about NASA's Curiosity mission:

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Pamela Rentz

Pamela Rentz is a freelance writer and editor who has been working in marketing communications and PR for technology—from startups to Fortune 100 outfits—for more than eighteen years. She’s a regular contributor to TechWell.com and GardenTraveler.com. She’s also a Georgia Master Gardener and, when not writing, can usually be found in a garden somewhere.