mars curiosity wheel damage
December 21, 2013

Curiosity Team Updates Rover’s Software, Plans To Check For Wheel Wear

redOrbit Staff & Wire Reports - Your Universe Online

Having successfully completed a software upgrade, the team operating NASA’s Mars rover Curiosity now plans to check the vehicle’s wheel for wear-and-tear, officials with the US space agency announced on Friday.

Jim Erickson of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), manager of the Mars Science Laboratory project, said Curiosity is now running version 11 of its flight software. This is the third upgrade since the rover landed on Mars 16 months ago, and it took engineers approximately one week to fully replace the previous version.

While an earlier attempt to upgrade to version 11 on November 7 resulted in an unintended reboot forcing the team to temporarily revert to version 10, the agency reported the Friday switch-over went smoothly. Version 11 will enhance Curiosity’s ability to use its robotic arm while on slopes, and will also improve its overnight information storage capabilities for use when resuming autonomous driving the following day.

The next task for Erickson and the Curiosity team is to pilot the rover to a fairly smooth area of ground so they can collect images of the rover’s aluminum wheels. They plan to use the Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) camera at the end of the rover's arm for this task.

“We want to take a full inventory of the condition of the wheels,” Erickson, who served as project manager for NASA's Galileo mission to Jupiter for three years prior to joining the rover project in 2011, said in a statement. “Dents and holes were anticipated, but the amount of wear appears to have accelerated in the past month or so.

“It appears to be correlated with driving over rougher terrain,” he added. “The wheels can sustain significant damage without impairing the rover's ability to drive. However, we would like to understand the impact that this terrain type has on the wheels, to help with planning future drives.”

Recent journeys have forced Curiosity to traverse a region that had multiple sharp rocks embedded in the ground, the agency explained. Routes to future mission destinations could be charted ahead of time in order to reduce the amount of time the rover needs to cross areas of rough terrain.

Earlier this month, Curiosity was able to conduct the first-ever geological analysis of a rock sample on another planet by running a geochemical analysis of a mudstone specimen from Yellowstone Bay on Mars. Scientists used Curiosity’s Sample Analysis on Mars (SAM) instrument to heat the sample enough for gases to be released, then captured those gases with an onboard mass spectrometer for analysis. They determined the samples were between 3.8 and 4.5 billion years old.

Image 2 (below): NASA's Mars rover Curiosity captured this 360-degree view using its Navigation Camera (Navcam) after a 17-foot (5.3 meter) drive on 477th Martian day, or sol, of the rover's work on Mars (Dec. 8, 2013). Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech