Skip to main content

How Curiosity is keeping itself entertained on Mars over the long weekend

It might be a long weekend in the U.S., but on Mars, the Curiosity rover doesn’t get holidays off.

Typically, the Curiosity team will plan out all the rover’s activities over the weekend, then leave the rover to execute those plans while they take a well-deserved weekend break. The time for the rover is planned out in “sols,” or Martian solar days, which are just a touch longer than an Earth day, at 24 hours, 39 minutes, 35 seconds long.

The team will typically plan out 3-sol weekends for Curiosity, but as this weekend is a holiday they needed to plan out 5 sols of activity for the rover. “To give the (American) Earthlings a holiday on Friday, we planned 5 sols of activities for Curiosity today,” NASA scientists wrote in a blog post. “But our rover will certainly not be taking any days off, with a mix of science and engineering activities over the long weekend.”

This image was taken by Rear Hazard Avoidance Camera (Rear Hazcam) onboard NASA's Mars rover Curiosity on Sol 2809.
This image was taken by Rear Hazard Avoidance Camera (Rear Hazcam) onboard NASA’s Mars rover Curiosity on Sol 2809. NASA/JPL-Caltech

One important task for Curiosity this weekend is the updating of the rover computer’s flight software as part of routine software updates. Even on Mars, software needs to be regularly updated. During these updates, the rover cannot perform science operations. So these tasks will take up the first and last sol of the 5-sol period. Software updates can be used to add new functionalities to the rover and make improvements in its systems such as by tweaking its autonomous driving capabilities.

Without direct physical access to the rover for years and even decades, the scientists have to make the best use of these software updates to keep the mission going for as long as possible. In 2013, a software update was even able to save Curiosity’s worn-down wheels by using a traction control algorithm to adjust the wheels’ speed and orientation to reduce wear and improve traction.

Front hazard (FHAZ) image from our current workspace, looking back up towards "Bloodstone Hill."
Sols 2805-2809: Front hazard (FHAZ) image from our current workspace, looking back up towards “Bloodstone Hill.” NASA/JPL-Caltech

In the time not spent performing software updates, Curiosity will be performing a schedule of remote sensing science, including using its ChemCam and Mastcam instruments to investigate the nearby rock environment for the geology theme group, known as GEO.

It is also currently the dusty season on Mars, where the wind picks up tiny particles which cover most surfaces. “The amount of dust in the atmosphere has been increasing over the last 2 weeks, although it is still within typical values for the season above Gale Crater,” the NASA scientists wrote. But they will be keeping an eye on the weather and looking out for dust devils so they’ll have advance warning for any storms developing.

Editors' Recommendations

Georgina Torbet
Georgina is the Digital Trends space writer, covering human space exploration, planetary science, and cosmology. She…
NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover gets a speed boost
curiosity clay samples water

While NASA’s newer Perseverance rover tends to get all the headlines these days, the Curiosity rover also continues to explore the surface of Mars more than a decade after it reached the red planet.

The team at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), which oversees the Mars rover missions, has just given Curiosity a new lease of life after installing its first major software update in seven years.

Read more
How Europe’s ExoMars rover plans to get to Mars without Russia
ESA’s Rosalind Franklin twin rover is back on its wheels and drilled down 1.7 metres into a martian-like ground in Italy – about 25 times deeper than any other rover has ever attempted on Mars. The test rover, known as Amalia, also collected samples for analysis under the watchful eye of European science teams.

Space missions get scuppered for all kinds of reasons, from engineering problems to budget issues. But the ExoMars mission, Europe and Russia's joint plan to send a rover to Mars, faced a complicated political and ethical issue when Russia invaded Ukraine last year. The European Space Agency (ESA) had been working with the Russian space agency Roscomos on the mission but this partnership was soon suspended over what ESA called the "human casualties and tragic consequences of the aggression towards Ukraine."

Without Roscosmos, the Rosalind Franklin rover was left without a launcher and it was not clear whether the rover would be able to launch at all. But loath to give up on the project, ESA decided it would build its own lander and get the rover to Mars hopefully by 2030. This week, ESA shared more information about the plans for the mission and how it is continuing with testing for the rover.

Read more
How much fuel is left in this 20-year-old Mars orbiter?
NASA’s 2001 Mars Odyssey orbiter is depicted in this illustration. The mission team spent most of 2021 assessing how much propellant is left on the orbiter, concluding it has enough to stay active through at least 2025.

Designing, building, and launching a spacecraft is hugely expensive. That's why NASA missions to Mars are designed with the hope that they'll last as long as possible -- like the famous Opportunity rover which was supposed to last for 90 days and managed to keep going for 15 years. The longer a mission can keep running, the more data it can collect, and the more we can learn from it.

That's true for the orbiters which travel around Mars as well as the rovers which explore its surface, like the Mars Odyssey spacecraft which was launched in 2001 and has been in orbit around Mars for more than 20 years. But the orbiter can't keep going forever as it will eventually run out of fuel, so figuring out exactly how much fuel is left is important -- but it also turned out to be more complicated than the NASA engineers were expecting.

Read more