An important software update has been installed on NASA‘s Curiosity rover. This update will allow the Mars robot to increase its speed and reduce wheel wear, but these are just two of the approximately 180 modifications implemented in the update, which required the team to suspend Curiosity’s scientific and imaging operations between April 3rd and 7th.
New features of the rover
“Software is essential to our mission, so this was a big issue for our team” said Kathya Zamora-Garcia, Project Manager of Curiosity at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “This is a major software update and we had to make sure we did it right”.
The planning for this update dates back to 2016, when Curiosity received its last software revision. Other changes include corrections to the messages that the rover sends to mission controllers on Earth. Others simplify the computer code that has been altered by multiple patches since Curiosity landed in 2012. But the biggest changes will help Curiosity operate more efficiently in the years to come.
The rover can now “think while being driven”, a capability that belongs to the Perseverance rover and can be executed more advancedly while navigating between rocks and sand traps. When Perseverance moves, it constantly takes pictures of the ground ahead of it, processing them with a dedicated computer so it can navigate autonomously.
Curiosity does not have a dedicated computer for this purpose. This means that it has to start and stop repeatedly during a long journey. New software will help the venerable rover process images faster, allowing it to spend more time on the move.
Preserving the rover’s wheels
“This will not allow Curiosity to move faster like Perseverance. But instead of stopping for a whole minute after a driving segment, we will only stop for a few seconds” said Jonathan Denison of JPL. “Spending less time at minimum between propulsion segments also means consuming less energy every day. And even though it has been almost 11 years, we are still implementing new ideas to increase the energy available for scientific activities”.
The team also wants to keep Curiosity’s aluminum wheels healthy. These began to show signs of wear as early as 2013. Engineers realized that sharp rocks on the surface of the red planet were chipping away at the treads. To address the issue, they developed an algorithm to improve traction and reduce wheel wear by adjusting the rover’s speed depending on the rocks it is rolling over.
New software also introduces two new mobility commands that reduce the amount of steering Curiosity must perform during driving. With less steering required, the team can reach the driving goal more quickly and reduce inherent steering wear.
Simplifying engineers’ work
Overall, the new software will simplify the work of human drivers of Curiosity, who must write complex plans containing hundreds of commands. Additionally, Curiosity’s software update will allow them to load software patches more easily than in the past. Engineers will be able to plan the movements of Curiosity’s robotic arm more efficiently and aim its “head” more accurately.
As with any major software update, there is a sense of relief in seeing it work as expected, Denison said. “The idea of pressing the installation button was a bit scary” he added. “Despite all our tests, we never know exactly what will happen until the software is available”