After a year on Mars, NASA's Curiosity rover changes our view of the solar system

Robotic rover will soon get the smarts to make its own driving decisions

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While Curiosity has not found any sign that there ever was organic life on Mars, scientists are hoping the rover is moving into position to do just that.

Earlier this summer, Curiosity began a long trek to what has always been the focus of its two-year primary mission: Mount Sharp. It's a six-mile, arduous journey for a rover that, so far at least, only covers between 130 feet and 330 feet a day.

The trip to Mount Sharp could take seven months or maybe even an entire year, depending on how often scientists have Curiosity stop to investigate anything of interest along the way. But once there, NASA scientists are hopeful that Mars will reveal even more clues about his history.

"When we started this whole mission, the base of Mount Sharp was the most likely place to find a habitable environment," said Trosper. "We've already done that, but maybe there is a greater likelihood of finding an organic signature there."

Trosper noted that within a month, Curiosity should be making more ground on its daily drives because the rover will be able to start doing more decision-making on its own. NASA programmers and engineers will be giving Curiosity additional software for what they're calling auto-navigation.

Right now, Curiosity takes pictures of the terrain around it and sends them to NASA. There, its drivers, wearing 3D glasses, make sure they understand where the rover is, what obstacles -- such as rocks, holes or soft sand -- are around it. Then they plot the drive it will make the next day.

However, if the rover has to drive up a hill, scientists plotting its course don't know what's on the other side, so they have the rover stop at the top, take more pictures and wait for more instructions.

With auto-navigation software, the rover should be able to decide for itself whether it's safe to proceed on its own. That means Curiosity could drive an additional 200 to 300 feet a day, potentially more than doubling its previous average mileage.

Adding auto-navigation capabilities won't require a software upgrade, though NASA programmers are working to make sure the rover's current software can handle the additional instructions it will get.

In November, however, it will get a software upgrade. Trosper said NASA is wrapping up work on that update now.

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

Trosper noted that tens of thousands of people have worked on the project over several years, including programmers, chemists, atmospheric scientists, engineers, IT security and aerospace engineers.

With so many scientists working on the project and Curiosity's current health, Trosper said she's hoping the rover will work well past its planned two-year mission.

"I'm very hopeful that Curiosity will last years and years like Opportunity and Spirit," she added. "Opportunity is 10 years old. I'm hopeful for 10 years for Curiosity. I'm hopeful it could last till my kids are old enough to work on it, but my kids are young so that may be too hopeful."

For today anyway, Cahoy is happy simply to mark Curiosity's one-year anniversary.

"It's a wonderful milestone because a year in operation in a harsh environment on another planet after a crazy landing is really notable," she said. "You design missions hoping they'll last long enough to get good results and Curiosity has done that already.

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

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Copyright © 2013 IDG Communications, Inc.

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