Monday, 13 August 2012 12:24
August 13, 2012
NASA's recently-landed Mars Rover, the Curiosity, has already captured the imagination of people all around the world, serving as a stunning example of successful engineering research and development. But as it stood the probe was not likely to go much further, at least not without some critical reprogramming from engineers back on Earth, according to The Los Angeles Times.
As of this past weekend, the Curiosity was going through what some of NASA's scientists refer to as a "brain transplant," updating the rovers systems to allow it to complete the next phase of the mission after successfully landing on planet.
"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, the mission's chief software engineer, according to ZDNet. "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."
The software update, which started last Friday, was scheduled to be completed sometime on Monday. When it was completed the probe would gain some crucial functionality for the next step of its mission to explore Gale Crater. In specific, up until this update Curiosity could not actually drive anywhere or make use of its onboard sampling lab, both of which would have proven critical in moving around to the different sites in the crater.
The problem, as engineers explained, is that computer designed for missions into space are usually generations behind modern consumer electronics, since it takes years to develop a computer system capable of surviving the temperature swings, radiation and other environmental hazards of interplanetary space.
"My phone has a processor that is 10 times as fast as the processor that's on Curiosity and has 16 times as much storage as Curiosity has," Cichy told the Times. "And my phone doesn't have to land anything on Mars."
At the same time, some other news could make the probe's job a bit more interesting, with Phys.org reporting that researchers at the University of California at Los Angeles have detected the basic signs of plate tectonics on the red planet. While the discovery might not have any direct bearing on the Curiosity's search for signs of life, the researchers noted that the findings show how different Mars is from traditional conceptions.
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