Curiosity preps for a planned ‘brain transplant’

August 11, 2012

First 360-degree panorama in color from NASA’s Curiosity rover, showing the Gale Crater landing site; stitched from thumbnails of images taken by the Mast Camera (credit: NASA)


MARS, DAY 5, AUG 10: Software update prep (uploaded to the rover’s memory during flight from Earth) for both of Curiosity’s redundant main computers. When: evening through Aug. 13. New features: driving, with check for obstacles; full use of robotic arm and drill, advanced image processing. autonomous operation (identify and avoid potential hazards, drive along a safe path that the rover identifies for itself).

MARS, DAY 4 AUG 9: Awoken by tune “Good Morning” from the musical “Singing in the Rain.” File transfers: color and high-res black-and-white 360-degree images downlinked, including 130 low-res thumbnail images from the color Mast Camera — first color panorama glimpse of Gale Crater. Instrument checks: Radiation Assessment Detector, Alpha Particle X-ray Spectrometer (APXS), Chemistry & Mineralogy Analyzer (CheMin), Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM), Dynamic Albedo Neutrons (DAN): normal. Map creation initiated: 150 square miles around Gale crater.

Computerworld, AUG 9 — Picture doing a remote software upgrade. Now picture doing it when the machine you’re upgrading is a robotic rover sitting 350 million miles away, on the surface of Mars.

“You have to imagine that if something goes wrong with this, it could be the last time you hear from the rover,” said Steve Scandore, a senior flight software engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

“It has to work,” he told Computerworld. “You don’t want to be known as the guy doing the last activity on the rover before you lose contact. It’s not like doing a regular remote upgrade. We don’t have a person on the other end. The vehicle is up there by itself. We can’t interact with someone on the other end. We have no one we can ask to check something for us. We have to send code up and then wait.”

And while this is a major software upgrade, Andy Mishkin, a mission leader with JPL, noted that he has a separate team of about 100 programmers who write commands for Curiosity every day… And once a team of NASA scientists make the daily decision as to what the rover will do, programmers have to begin furiously working on up to a 1,000 different commands that will be uploaded to the rover.

100 programmers furiously coding 1,000 different commands in real time for a major software upgrade, with no testing? Hey, what could go wrong? — Ed.