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Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Curiosity prepares for "Brain Transplant"

The Mars Science Laboratory has landed, it's cameras are snapping images of a never-before seen region of Mars and the "7-minutes of terror" seem like a distant memory. Now that rover Curiosity looks forward to its first weekend on the Martian surface, what plans does it have?

It's preparing for a brain transplant.

This might not sound like your ideal weekend away on an alien world, but Curiosity's brain transplant will prepare it for the next phase of the mission. All the software Curiosity needed for the exciting entry, descent and landing (EDL) is now just surplus code taking up valuable memory.

"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.

"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."

So, like upgrading an operating system for your PC, Curiosity's team of software engineers are going to upgrade the rover's computers -- but rather than simply inserting an installation CD, they have to beam the software and commands over hundreds of millions of miles from Earth to Mars. From Aug. 10 to Aug. 13, a series of steps will be taken to perform the upgrade and prepare Curiosity for surface operations.

According to the JPL press release, the new software will include an image processing algorithm to allow Curiosity to identify potentially hazardous obstacles. This autonomy will allow the rover to map a safe path when negotiating the Martian terrain. As a result, longer, more trouble-free treks will be possible. (A similar operation was carried out for Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity in 2010 to allow the rover to automatically identify points of interest without having to wait for mission control to send the command.) Also, software will be uploaded to give the rover the ability to use tools at the end of the mission's robotic arm.

While the software installation commences, the MSL science team will continue to analyze the images captured by Curiosity to characterize the local region and identify points of interest for further investigation.

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