Curiosity Undergoing ‘Brain Transplant’

Curiosity is currently undergoing a brain transplant. More accurately the Mars Science Laboratory rover is having new software that was uploaded during its trip to Mars activated in preparation for its travels across the Martian surface. Photo Credit: Jeff Seibert / Wired4Space

NASA’s Mars rover Curiosity, fresh off her landing on Aug. 6 is getting a “brain transplant” in preparation for her future travels on the Red Planet. The rover will switch to software better suited for the mission in front of it – scientific exploration of Mars. More specifically software designed to allow the rover to utilize its powerful robotic arm and cruise around Gale crater.

The process to transition the rover to the new software started today (Aug. 10) and the process will continue through Aug. 13. The software will be uploaded into Curiosity’s redundant main computers and was transmitted to the rover during its eight-month journey to Mars.

Curiosity launched atop an Atlas V 541 rocket in November 2011. During the cruise phase between Earth and Mars the software that is needed for its scientific mission was uploaded to the rover. Photo Credit: Jeff Seibert / Wired4Space

“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.”

One of the most important aspects of the new version is the obstacle avoidance data that will allow the rover to safely tool around the Martian surface. Any communication between controllers on Earth and the rover on Mars is separated by a minimum of 14 minutes – meaning that Curiosity has to be able to determine what is and is not dangerous on her own. With this software in place, Curiosity will be able to drive further distances.

Besides software that will allow Curiosity to avoid obstacles during its travels this update will activate the rover’s robotic arm and its suite of scientific instruments. Photo Credit: Jeff Seibert / Wired4Space

For the scientists it is other aspects of the software that they are waiting on. They will activate the numerous capabilities of the tools located at the end of Curiosity’s robotic arm.

While the rover is undergoing this transition, the Mars Science Laboratory rover’s science team is reviewing images beamed back to Earth. These efforts are far more important than just mere sight-seeing. The team will use the images to determine the best places for Curiosity to visit while on the Red Planet. First things first, the rover will undergo a few weeks of initial checkouts and observations to determine the shape of the rover’s equipment as well as what the surrounding terrain is like.

Curiosity was delivered to its new home via a flying saucer-shaped spacecraft that was slowed via a parachute upon entering the Martian atmosphere. Soon afterward the rover with its ‘James Bond’ Sky Crane jetpack was ejected and the rover was lowered safely to the ground. This occurred at 10:31:45 p.m. PDT on Aug. 5 (1:31:45 a.m. EDT on Aug. 6).

The Mars Science Laboratory rover Curiosity is scheduled to conduct scientific operations on Mars for two years. Photo Credit: Alan Walters /

It is unknown whether-or-not rovers and landers reach the surface of Mars after this period known as entry-descent and landing (EDL) or as it is more commonly referred to – the ‘seven minutes of terror.’ This is because it takes approximately 14 minutes for transmissions to reach Earth from Mars (even though these transmissions travel at the speed of light – some 186,000 miles per second).

MSL has one impressive toolkit at her disposal. The rover boasts 10 scientific instruments and the rover itself is far larger than any rover sent before it. The Mars Exploration Rovers (MER) Spirit and Opportunity, who arrived on Mars in 2004, are about the size of golf carts. Curiosity by comparison is the size of a mini Cooper and has the science payloads to match. This equipment is some 15 times the mass of those of the twin MER rovers.

These tools include the following:

  • An instrument that uses a laser to determine the composition of rocks from a distance (this will mark the first time such a device has been used on  Mars).
  • Curiosity will employ a drill and scoop, located at the end of its robotic arm. It will use them to gather samples and analyze these samples using a laboratory that the rover has on board.
With each new mission, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory is providing more and more unique views of the events that take place during the mission. In the image to the left one can see the plume that resulted from the Sky Crane plummeting into the Martian surface. The right image shows the same area shot afterward confirming the first image does indeed show the impact event occurring. Photo Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech

To use these tools and to be able to accomplish its mission Curiosity needs a powerful fuel source. Spirit and Opportunity rely on solar arrays – this type of power source was unacceptable for this new mega-rover. It employs a plutonium power pack which should power the rover for its planned two-year mission.

Gale crater is a short distance from Mt. Sharp. Spacecraft in orbit have identified clay and sulfate minerals in the mountain’s lower layers, which could point to a time in the region’s history that was far wetter than today. If the area once had water standing on its surface life could have arisen and Curiosity has been dispatched to this area to search for any evidence of its existence – past or present.

Curiosity launched from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s Space Launch Complex 41 in Florida in November of 2011. It traveled in the void between worlds for months before it seared throught the Martian atmosphere at 1:32 a.m. EDT on Aug. 6. The $2.5 billion rover’s landing method, more specifically the Sky Crane, caused many to fear the mission was over before it even began. These fears were unfounded as all the systems worked as planned and Curiosity made it safely to the surface and is now being prepared to begin its primary mission.

Mt. Sharp, seen here in the distance, appears to have been formed during a period when Mars was far wetter than it is today. With the new software in place, Curiosity will now seek to discover if this means that it once harbored life. Photo Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech


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