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NASA does long-distance software fix on Mars rover Curiosity

Houston, we have an IT problem! Glitch hits during software upgrade

November 13, 2013 07:13 AM ET

Computerworld - NASA engineers have fixed a software glitch that had stalled the Mars rover Curiosity during a software upgrade last week.

After going into safe mode last Thursday, full operations were restored for the robotic rover on Sunday, according to the space agency. Curiosity's scientific work is expected to resume Thursday.

The Mars rover Curiosity
The Mars rover Curiosity has two computers, four chips and software designed to last throughout its two-year mission. (Artist concept: NASA)

"We returned to normal engineering operations," said Rajeev Joshi, a software and systems engineer for the Curiosity mission, in a statement. "We are well into planning the next several days of surface operations and expect to resume our drive to Mount Sharp this week."

The software problem occurred the same day that Curiosity's software was updated.

The rover's operations team reported that the trouble was caused by an error in the onboard software that triggered an error in a catalog file. That caused an unexpected reset when the catalog was processed by the new version of the rover's flight software, which had been installed last Thursday.

After reviewing the data that Curiosity sent to Earth Thursday night, NASA engineers were able to replicate the problem in test beds.

To ix the glitch, engineers wrote and tested new commands, which were uplinked to Curiosity on Sunday.

In an interview with Computerworld this past August, Jennifer Trosper, NASA's deputy project manager for the Mars Science Lab Mission said engineers were working on a big software upgrade that would be installed this month.

The upgrade is designed to make it easier for scientists to judge distance in the images the rover takes, as well as giving Curiosity more stability while it's drilling. The new software also will enable Curiosity to immediately send high-priority images to Earth, instead of waiting to send them at day's end.

In late summer, NASA programmers and engineers uplinked another round of new software to the rover that gave Curiosity the ability to do some of its own navigation during drives across the Martian surface.

Previously, Curiosity took pictures of the surrounding terrain and sent them back to NASA, where the images were studied and the rover's next drive was meticulously plotted.

One problem was if the rover got to the top of a hill or encountered a ditch or boulder that hadn't been visible before, it had to stop, take more photos and wait for further instructions.

Now, Curiosity is able to often decide for itself if it's safe to proceed without checking in with engineers on Earth. This enables the rover to log more miles on any given day.

The rover landed on Mars in August 2012 with a two-year mission to help scientists figure out if Mars is able to, or ever was able to support life.

So far, Curiosity has discovered evidence of ancient water flows and water in the Martian soil. However, it has not found methane, which is emitted by living organisms, in the atmosphere.

This article, NASA does long-distance software fix on Mars rover Curiosity, was originally published at Computerworld.com.

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

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