Mars rover gets new orders

Posted by Kate Taylor

NASA's in the final stages of a series of software updates to the Curiosity Mars rover designed to optimize it for surface operations.

For the last three days, it's been installing the new programs on both of the rover's redundant main computers with the aim of improving Curopsity's driving and grappling abilities.

The software was uploaded to the rover's memory during its flight from Earth.

"We designed the mission from the start to be able to upgrade the software as needed for different phases of the mission," says Ben Cichy, 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."

One of the most important capabilities in the new version is image processing to allow the rover to check for obstacles. This will mean it can take longer drives, as it will be able to identify and avoid potential hazards and choose a safe path for itself.

Other new capabilities will facilitate use of the tools at the end of the rover's robotic arm. It will use a drill and scoop to gather soil and powdered samples of rock interiors, then sieve and parcel out these samples into the rover's analytical laboratory instruments.

Meanwhile, the mission's science team will continue to to analyze images of the rover's surroundings inside Gale Crater. Observations from orbit have identified clay and sulfate minerals in the lower layers, indicating a wet history.