Software update aids successful Mars landing

Software update aids successful Mars landing

To make its picture-perfect landing on Mars, the first of NASA's twin Mars Exploration Rovers are using software whose testing wasn't completed until well into the crafts' flight.

The space agency's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., uploaded a rebuilt software package to the rover Spirit during the first week of December, said Roger Klemm, a flight software developer at JPL. The other rover, Opportunity, received the same software rebuild during the second week of December.

The rovers didn't launch with the completed code because NASA needed to further test the atmospheric entry and descent instructions before giving them to the spacecraft, said Klemm, a member of the hardware and software integration team.

Each software uplink took about 24 hours at a rate of 2 Kbps. 'Think of trying to upload Windows over a slow modem,' Klemm said.

The first of the rover spacecraft landed in the Red Planet's Gusev crater late Saturday evening and has been beaming surface images back to Earth at a steady clip. After a series of tests of its onboard geological instruments, the Spirit rover will roll off its landing pad and begin searching for signs of past water.

Opportunity is scheduled to land on a different region of the Red Planet's surface Jan. 24.

The software update should give the rovers the applications needed to run the science mission, although there will be patches transmitted if necessary, Klemm said.

Wind River Systems Inc. made the operating system, VxWorks OS, that runs on the radiation-hardened 20-MHz Rad 6000 CPU module aboard the NASA rovers. Mike Deliman, a technical staff member at the Alameda, Calif., company, has served the Mars rover project as chief engineer for the OS.

Spirit's onboard computer has only 128M of memory, so 'there's not a whole lot of instructions we can give it,' Deliman said.

The twin rovers Spirit and Opportunity were launched last summer (see GCN story).

Through its Mars Web site, NASA offers a photo gallery, press kits, fact sheets and classroom resources for teachers. The site has experienced a constant spiral in use since Spirit's landing this past weekend.

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