Nasa has announced that the Mars Curiosity has had a successful "brain transplant" that was needed to optimize it for surface operations, and is checking the instruments it will use to explore Mars.
The mission team is also looking down from orbit at Curiosity's new home in Gale Crater. (Indicated by the green dot in the image below)
The brain transplant, or software upgrade saw the installation of a new version of software on both of the rover’s redundant main computers. This software for Mars surface operations was uploaded to the rover’s memory during the Mars Science Laboratory spacecraft’s 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,” said Ben Cichy of Nasa’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory , 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.”
A key capability in the new version is image processing to check for obstacles. This 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 for itself. Other new capabilities facilitate use of the tools at the end of the rover’s robotic arm.
Its ultimate goal is to scale the lower slopes in search of the chemical building blocks of life to determine whether the environment was favorable for microbial life. Curiosity has yet to make its first move on Mars, but scientists said Tuesday they are already mapping out possible driving routes to a Martian mountain.
Scientists have been poring over pictures of the landing site snapped by Curiosity and spacecraft circling overhead. The pebble-strewn terrain where the rover landed appeared easy to traverse but the landscape gets more rugged the closer to Mount Sharp.
The team identified half a dozen potential paths through buttes and mesas that are reminiscent of the southwestern United States. Vasavada estimated it’ll take a year to make the trip to the mountain driving about the length of a football field a day. Along the way, the six-wheel rover will make pit stops to study interesting rocks and scoop up soil.
Curiosity carries 10 science instruments with a total mass 15 times as large as the science payloads on Nasa’s Mars rovers Spirit and Opportunity. Some of the tools, such as a laser-firing instrument for checking rocks’ elemental composition from a distance, are the first of their kind on Mars. Curiosity will use a drill and scoop, which are located at the end of its robotic arm, to gather soil and powdered samples of rock interiors, then sieve and parcel out these samples into the rover’s analytical laboratory instruments.
To handle this science toolkit, Curiosity is twice as long and five times as heavy as Spirit or Opportunity.