The update brings loads of improvements, the most significant being new driving capabilities.
Years in the making, a major software update that has been installed on NASA’s Curiosity rover will enable the Mars robot to drive faster and reduce wear and tear on its wheels. Those are just two of about 180 changes implemented during the update, which required the team to put Curiosity’s science and imaging operations on hold between April 3 and April 7.
“The flight software is essential to our m
ission, so this is a big deal for our team,” said Curiosity Project Manager Kathya Zamora-Garcia of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California. “This is a major software update, and we had to make sure we did it right.”
Planning for this update goes back to 2016, when Curiosity last received a software overhaul. Some changes this time around are as small as making corrections to the messages the rover sends back to mission controllers on Earth. Others simplify computer code that has been altered by multiple patches since Curiosity touched down in 2012. The biggest changes will help keep Curiosity rolling more efficiently for years to come.
The rover can now do more of what the team calls “thinking while driving”—something NASA’s newest Mars rover, Perseverance, can perform in a more advanced way to navigate around rocks and sand traps. When Perseverance drives, it constantly snaps pictures of the terrain ahead, processing them with a dedicated computer so it can autonomously navigate during one continuous drive.
Curiosity doesn’t have a dedicated computer for this purpose. Instead, it drives in segments, halting to process imagery of the terrain after each segment. That means it needs to start and stop repeatedly over the course of a long drive. The new software will help the venerable rover process images faster, allowing it to spend more time on the move.
“This won’t let Curiosity drive as quickly as Perseverance, but instead of stopping for a full minute after a drive segment, we’re stopping for just a moment or two,” said Jonathan Denison of JPL, Curiosity’s engineering operations team chief. “Spending less time idling between drive segments also means we use less energy each day. And even though we’re almost 11 years old, we’re still implementing new ideas to use more of our available energy for science activities.”
Provided by JPL/NASA.