June 5, 2023

While NASA’s newer Perseverance rover tends to get all the headlines these days, the Curiosity rover also continues to explore the surface of Mars more than a decade after it reached the red planet.

The team at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), which oversees the Mars rover missions, has just given Curiosity a new lease of life after installing its first major software update in seven years.

Among the 180 changes implemented in the update, one of the most important ones gives the hardy rover improved driving skills that will enable it to cover ground more quickly.

Curiosity is designed to drive in segments, stopping after each one to assess captured imagery of the nearby terrain so that it can plan a safe route forward. This is in contrast with Perseverance, which has a dedicated computer that allows it to snap imagery and process it on the move.

While Curiosity will still need to halt after each segment, the new software will enable the rover to process the imagery much faster than before, helping to speed up its journey time.

“This won’t let Curiosity drive as quickly as Perseverance, but instead of stopping for a full minute after a drive segment, we’re stopping for just a moment or two,” JPL’s Jonathan Denison explained in an online post. “Spending less time idling between drive segments also means we use less energy each day. And even though we’re almost 11 years old, we’re still implementing new ideas to use more of our available energy for science activities.”

It’s worth noting that Curiosity’s movement across the martian surface will still be something of a crawl as its top speed is a little less than 1 mph, considerably slower than the average 3 mph speed that humans walk at.

The recent software update will also lead to less wear and tear on the rover’s aluminum wheels, improve the efficiency of Curiosity’s Earth-based human drivers, and pave the way for easier operation of Curiosity’s robotic arm.

Other changes include enhancements to the way Curiosity sends messages to JPL, and the simplification of computer code that has been altered by numerous patches since Curiosity over the years.

“The biggest changes will help keep Curiosity rolling more efficiently for years to come,” JPL saiid.

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