Curiosity Rover gets "brain transplant" to explore on its own

NASA's Curiosity rover is having its "Windows Update" moment, with the Mars exploration vehicle undergoing a huge "brain transplant" this weekend to better equip it for the challenges ahead. The new version of the flight software will installation today, and NASA expects the process to be completed by Monday, tweaking how Curiosity drives as well as how its robotic arm operates.

Curiosity has not one but two computers, added protection through redundancy should one fail. They're hardly Core i7 behemoths, either; rather than well-traveled mainframes, the rover's twin brains prioritize stability and protection from radiation over raw compute power. At their heart is a 200MHz RAD750 processor, paired with 256KB of EEPROM, 256MB of DRM and 2GB of flash memory, specifications that make even a mid-range smartphone look expansive.

However, where your Android phone might have problems handling the radiation involved in traveling to and crossing Mars, Curiosity's systems do not. Specially radiation-hardened memory is used so as to prevent data loss from the difficult conditions.

In fact, the only data loss involved is intentional. The limited storage space meant that Curiosity couldn't carry both its flight and its operational software simultaneously; the former, now no longer of use since the tricky "Seven Minutes of Terror" landing has been completed, will be deleted to make room for the new on-Mars brain.

With its new skill-set, Curiosity will be able to fully use its arm and drill, along with better image processing so as to avoid obstacles during driving. NASA's goal is to make the rover self-autonomous, able to create its own path rather than relying on pre-configured goals beamed over from Earth.

Unfortunately for those of us enjoying the photos sent back from Mars, there are unlikely to be more until the software update is completed. NASA opted to freeze scientific research until the computers had been fully brought up to speed, and will be using the downtime to identify the first areas of exploration from the 360-degree panoramas already recorded.