NASA to upgrade rover's software, enabling it to move, use robotic arm

Four-day software upgrade process for robotic rover begins Saturday

NASA programmers and engineers will begin upgrading the Mars Curiosity rover's software on Saturday, increasing its ability to move and use its robotic arm.

The software upgrade, dubbed R10, was uploaded to the rover during its 350-million-mile journey to Mars and is waiting to be activated. If all goes as planned, it will take four days to update the software on the rover's main computer and its backup computer.

While the rover was cruising through space, it received a software update that guided the craft through entry into the Martian atmosphere and to its landing. Now NASA engineers will push that aside for software that will operate the rover's activities on the surface of Mars.

"We're going to jettison the EDL (entry descent landing) software," joked Ben Cichy, a senior software and systems engineer at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. "The surface mission is quite complicated and needs a lot of smarts... Curiosity was born to drive. We're giving her the capability to get out and stretch her wheels on the surface of Mars."

Speaking at a press conference Friday, Cichy explained that the upgrade will start Saturday but engineers will take their time, easing into the upgrade to make sure there are no problems.

"On Sol 5, we'll do a toe dip into the new software," said Cichy. "We'll install it softly just to check it out. Then if everything looks good, on Sol 6 we'll do the full install on the main computer. Then on Sol 7 we'll start with the backup computer."

A Sol refers to a single Martian day. Sol 5 is the fifth full day that Curiosity has been on Mars.

In an interview with Computerworld on Thursday, Steve Scandore, a senior flight software engineer at JPL, noted that a team of programmers and engineers have long been working on the software, as well as the upgrade process.

"You have to imagine that if something goes wrong with this, it could be the last time you hear from the rover," he said. "It has to work. You don't want to be known as the guy doing the last activity on the rover before you lose contact."

The surface software holds advanced controls to drive Curiosity, as well as to operate its 7-foot robotic arm, its ability to scoop up soil samples and its ability to spot hazards in its path.

"R10 has a lot of great stuff that the science team wants," said Cichy.

Sharon Gaudin covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld. Follow Sharon on Twitter at @sgaudin or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed. Her e-mail address is sgaudin@computerworld.com.

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