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NASA's wild plan to bring Martian rocks to Earth

Sharon Gaudin | Jan. 12, 2015
The Mars rover Curiosity team's new leader wants to use robots and a rocket in a three-step plan to deliver samples from Mars to Earth.

A software upgrade for Curiosity

Curiosity, the rover that's been working on Mars since 2012, is also about to get a software update. Vasavada said the upgrade, which will occur before the end of this month, will be the rover's fourth since it landed on Mars.

According to NASA, the files already have been uplinked to the rover and are sitting in its file system, waiting for the installation.

The new software adds protections against bugs identified in rover test beds on Earth. One improvement will enable the rover to take measurements at the same time that it's using its drill. That should better enable the rover to sense if it is slipping during a drilling operation.

The upgrade also will add a new traction-control drive mode for the rover's wheels, making its driving ability more efficient.

"We're not really nervous about this at all," Vasavada said. "It just means we have to not operate the rover scientifically for about a week to give the team time to load up the software and switch operations to the new version in a very careful way. All of those steps can take about a week on Mars."

On top of writing the code for this software upgrade, NASA engineers also have been working on a troubling issue with Curiosity's wheels. The rover's wheels, which largely are made of aluminum, have suffered punctures and tears caused by driving over small rocks that are sitting on solid rockbed.

"We had to slow down for a few months to try to figure out what is going on," Vasavada said. "We were getting more tears and punctures than we thought we'd see ... We worked with geologists to figure out what rocks were causing the damage and we worked with engineers to figure out how the rover interacts with the rocks."

He explained that the way the rover drives, the back wheels were pushing the front wheels directly into sharp rocks instead of driving over them. Small, hard rocks the size of a man's fist sitting on bedrock, would push through the wheels instead of sinking into the solid ground.

"It was interesting engineering to figure that out," said Vasavada. "We're developing ways to drive differently to avoid that."

He added that engineers will likely take on the driving issue in a future software upgrade.

"Right now the damage isn't affecting the rover's ability to do its job," said Curiosity's team leader. "The holes in the aluminum are the size of a quarter in between the treads. As of now, they're not causing any mechanical issues, but if they were to keep occurring at the same rate, then we would have a problem before the mission's lifetime would end. But since we've figured it out, we think we can slow the rate of damage."

Curiosity, which has discovered evidence of ancient water on Mars, as well as traces of methane, was sent to the Red Planet to help scientists determine whether life, even in microbial form, ever existed there.


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