Ultimate in remote tech support: Updating software on the Mars rover

Linda Musthaler
By | August 11, 2012

Posted in: Network Security Trends

Don’t you hate it when you buy a new piece of computing gear and the first thing you have to do when you power it up is install an update to the operating system? Well, now you know how the NASA scientists at Jet Propulsion Laboratory feel. Since landing the amazing scientific rover Curiosity on Mars on August 5, the scientists haven’t been able to really enjoy their new gadget. Aside from running a battery of check-out tests on Curiosity, NASA now needs to update the machine’s OS, and it’s expected to take four Martian days (called sols) to complete the upgrade. (See NASA Primes Mars Rover Curiosity for Software Update.)

No, the update isn’t to install the latest Windows patch. Thankfully, Curiosity doesn’t run on Windows. (More on this in a moment.)

The planned software update is necessary to switch the Mars rover from “landing mode” to “science mode.” Curiosity mission manager Mike Watkins reported on August 9 that the new software will help mission controllers drive the $2.5 billion Mars rover, use its science instruments and operate its robotic arm. "We want to switch to this new flight software that's optimized for surface operations," Watkins said. The software upgrade process is expected to last roughly four days, and during this time, all other activities, including science, will temporarily be put on hold.

Just think of all those poor scientists – itching to look for signs of life on Mars – and now they have to wait four days to complete the software installation! After the software transition is carried out, one of the main priorities will be to have the rover beam back more photos that were taken during its first few days on Mars. After that, the real fun can begin.

When we think of a marvel device like the Mars rover, we assume it must be filled with the absolute latest and greatest technology man has developed. Not so, according to Dwight Silverman of the Houston Chronicle. (See NASA about to perform the ultimate software upgrade…on Mars.) Silverman did some digging and turned up this article on ExtremeTech that describes Curiosity’s primary hardware and software.

As for the hardware, ExtremeTech reports that “the CPU is a PowerPC 750 (PowerPC G3 in Mac nomenclature) clocked at around 200MHz — which might seem slow, but it’s still hundreds of times faster than, say, the Apollo Guidance Computer used in the first moon landings. Also on the motherboard are 256MB of DRAM, and 2GB of flash storage — which will be used to store video and scientific data before transmission to Earth.”

For the software, NASA selected the 27-year-old VxWorks operating system, which is a real-time operating system used in a number of embedded space systems, including the previous Mars rovers and the SpaceX Dragon spacecraft.  Though the OS is a bit long in the tooth, that doesn’t mean it’s antiquated; it has been continuously updated over the decades to the point where it is mature and extremely reliable for the space systems it is deployed on. This is critical, given the fact that no human is able to physically touch the rover for any sort of maintenance if anything should go wrong.

I know NASA has its budget constraints, but what’s up with the nearly three decade old OS and the CPU that’s less powerful than what a smartphone possesses? Stability and maturity, that’s what. When you have a multiyear project like a Mars rover than has been six years in the planning and that faces at least two years (and hopefully more) in operation, you want a platform that is consistent and that you know will have minimal problems.

Back in the mid ‘80’s, I was a NASA contractor at Johnson Space Center. I had the opportunity to “fly” the space shuttle training simulator. When I got in the cockpit, I was overwhelmed by the number of switches and gauges that practically surrounded the entire cockpit. Sitting right in the center console area was an odd keyboard with far fewer characters than the typical keyboard popularized by the PC era. I asked the simulator operator about it and he said that it was a twenty year old keyboard that matched the ones used at that time in the actual shuttles. He explained that computer systems used for the spacecraft were not state of the art because the shuttles were designed many years before and NASA needed to keep all equipment consistent and stable. (It was not until many years later that the shuttles underwent a retrofitting to give them more updated onboard computers.)

Let’s hope the software update for the Curiosity rover goes well and that NASA enjoys a spectacular mission for the next few years.

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