Looking over Curiosity’s Landscape

The Curiosity rover’s "brain transplant” is now complete, with a new version of software on both of the rover’s redundant main computers successfully installed. This software for Mars surface operations was uploaded to the rover’s memory during the Mars Science Laboratory spacecraft’s flight from Earth.

"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."

A key capability in the new version is image processing to check for obstacles. This allows for longer drives by giving the rover more autonomy to identify and avoid potential hazards and drive along a safe path the rover identifies for itself. Other new capabilities facilitate use of the tools at the end of the rover’s robotic arm.

While Curiosity completed the software transition, the mission’s science team analyzed images that the rover has taken of its surroundings inside Gale Crater. Researchers are discussing which features in the scene to investigate after a few weeks of initial checkouts and observations to assess equipment on the rover and characteristics of the landing site. New images also have been released from NASA’s orbiting Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter’s High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE):

This color-enhanced view shows the terrain around the rover’s landing site within Gale Crater on Mars. It was taken by the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) on NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona
This color-enhanced view of NASA’s Curiosity rover on the surface of Mars was taken by the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) on NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter as the satellite flew overhead. Colors have been enhanced to show the subtle color variations near the rover, which result from different types of materials. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona
NASA’s Curiosity rover landed in the Martian crater known as Gale Crater, which is approximately the size of Connecticut and Rhode Island combined. A green dot shows where the rover landed, well within its targeted landing ellipse, outlined in blue. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ESA/DLR/FU Berlin/MSSS
This image from NASA’s Curiosity rover looks south of the rover’s landing site on Mars towards Mount Sharp. This is part of a larger,high-resolution color mosaic made from images obtained by Curiosity’s Mast Camera. In this version of the image, colors have been modified as if the scene were transported to Earth and illuminated by terrestrial sunlight. This processing, called "white balancing," is useful for scientists to be able to recognize and distinguish rocks by color in more familiar lighting. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS
This view from Curiosity’s Navigation camera shows the hilly wall of Gale Crater. A full-resolution, 360-degree panorama from the Navigation camera available here. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The Mars Science Laboratory spacecraft delivered Curiosity to its target area on Mars at 10:31:45 p.m. PDT on Aug. 5 (1:31:45 a.m. EDT on Aug. 6), which includes the 13.8 minutes needed for confirmation of the touchdown to be radioed to Earth at the speed of light.

Curiosity carries 10 science instruments with a total mass 15 times as large as the science payloads on NASA’s Mars rovers Spirit and Opportunity. Some of the tools, such as a laser-firing instrument for checking rocks’ elemental composition from a distance, are the first of their kind on Mars. Curiosity will use a drill and scoop, which are located at the end of its robotic arm, to gather soil and powdered samples of rock interiors, then sieve and parcel out these samples into the rover’s analytical laboratory instruments.

To handle this science toolkit, Curiosity is twice as long and five times as heavy as Spirit or Opportunity. The Gale Crater landing site at 4.59 degrees south, 137.44 degrees east, places the rover within driving distance of layers of the crater’s interior mountain. Observations from orbit have identified clay and sulfate minerals in the lower layers, indicating a wet history.