NASA fixes computer glitch on robot traveling to Mars

As NASA's super rover hurtles through space, engineers upload software fix

NASA engineers updated the software for a robotic Mars rover, correcting a computer glitch more than two months old while the robot hurtled through space on its way to Mars.

Late in November, NASA launched its $2.5 billion Mars Science Laboratory. Dubbed Curiosity, the SUV-size super rover is on an eight-month journey to Mars with a mission to help scientists learn whether life can exist, or has ever existed, on the Red Planet.

However, a problem caused a computer reset on the rover Nov. 29, three days after the launch, NASA reported last week. The problem was due to a cache access error in the memory management unit of the rover's computer processor, a RAD750 from BAE Systems.

"Good detective work on understanding why the reset occurred has yielded a way to prevent it from occurring again," said Mars Science Laboratory Deputy Project Manager Richard Cook, in a statement. "The successful resolution of this problem was the outcome of productive teamwork by engineers at the computer manufacturer and [NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory]."

Guy Webster, a spokesman for the JPL, told Computerworld that because of the processor glitch, the rover's ground team was unable to use the craft's star scanner, which is designed for celestial navigation.

That technology was not in use for several months, and NASA engineers had to guide the rover through one major trajectory adjustment using alternate means, according to Webster.

The fix, which was uploaded to the rover as it traveled through space, changed the configuration of unused data-holding locations, called registers.

NASA reported that engineers confirmed this week that the fix was successful and that the star scanner is working again.

Curiosity, equipped with 10 science instruments, is expected to land on Mars in August.

The super rover is set to join the rover Opportunity, which has been working on Mars for more than six years. Opportunity has been working alone since a second rover, Spirit, stopped functioning last year.

Curiosity will collect soil and rock samples, and analyze them for evidence that the area has, or ever had, environmental conditions favorable to microbial life.

Curiosity weighs one ton and is twice as long as and five times heavier than its predecessors.

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

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