NASA: Mars rover Curiosity brain surgery complete (+video)
After a four-day software upgrade, NASA's Curiosity is ready to continue its 2-year search for Martian microbes. In about a week, the rover will go for its first test drive. Once it begins moving, it will be able to travel about the length of a football field daily.
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Engineers upgraded Curiosity's flight software over the weekend, switching the rover's main and backup computers from landing mode to surface mode. The four-day overhaul temporarily halted Curiosity's science and instrument-checkout work, which had begun almost immediately after the rover touched down inside Mars' Gale Crater on the night of Aug. 5.
But those activities can resume later today, on the rover's ninth full Martian day — or Sol 9, in mission lingo — because Curiosity's brain surgery went well, researchers said.
"It came off pretty much without a hitch," Curiosity mission systems manager Mike Watkins, of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, Calif., told reporters today. "All four days went as planned, so we're now 'go' to continue our checkout activities."
As part of the checkout process, Curiosity's handlers hope to turn the rover's wheels for the first time in the next week or so, Watkins added. [Gallery: Curiosity's 1st Photos of Mars]
"We're going to test the steering actuators on Sol 13, and then we are going to take it out for a test drive here probably around Sol 15," Watkins said. "We're going to do a short drive of, you know, a couple of meters, and then maybe turn and back up."
Seeking habitable environments
Curiosity is the centerpiece of NASA's $2.5 billion Mars Science Laboratory mission (MSL), which seeks to determine if the Red Planet could ever have hosted microbial life. To get at this question, Curiosity will analyze Martian rocks and soil with 10 different science instruments for the next two years or more.
The MSL team is interested in studying formations near the rover's landing site, which sits just downslope of an ancient alluvial fan — a feature likely created by water flowing downhill. But Curiosity's main target is the base of Mount Sharp, the mysterious 3.4-mile-high (5.5 kilometers) peak rising from Gale's center.