Skip to main content

NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover gets a speed boost

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.

Among the 180 changes implemented in the update, one of the most important ones gives the hardy rover improved driving skills, enabling it to cover ground more quickly.

Curiosity is designed to drive in segments, stopping after each one to assess captured imagery of the nearby terrain so that it can plan a safe route forward. This is in contrast with Perseverance, which has a dedicated computer that allows it to snap imagery and process it on the move.

While Curiosity will still need to halt after each segment, the new software will enable the rover to process the imagery much faster than before, helping to speed up its journey time.

“This won’t let Curiosity drive as quickly as Perseverance, but instead of stopping for a full minute after a drive segment, we’re stopping for just a moment or two,” JPL’s Jonathan Denison explained in an online post. “Spending less time idling between drive segments also means we use less energy each day. And even though we’re almost 11 years old, we’re still implementing new ideas to use more of our available energy for science activities.”

It’s worth noting that Curiosity’s movement across the Martian surface will still be something of a crawl as its top speed is a little less than 1 mph, considerably slower than the average 3 mph speed that humans walk at.

The recent software update will also lead to less wear and tear on the rover’s aluminum wheels, improve the efficiency of Curiosity’s Earth-based human drivers, and pave the way for easier operation of Curiosity’s robotic arm.

Other changes include enhancements to the way Curiosity sends messages to JPL and the simplification of computer code that has been altered by numerous patches since Curiosity over the years.

“The biggest changes will help keep Curiosity rolling more efficiently for years to come,” JPL said.

Editors' Recommendations

Trevor Mogg
Contributing Editor
Not so many moons ago, Trevor moved from one tea-loving island nation that drives on the left (Britain) to another (Japan)…
Watch NASA’s cinematic animation of upcoming Mars Sample Return mission
Animation screen grab showing NASA's upcoming Mars Sample Return mission.

NASA has released a cinematic animation showing some of the key moments from the upcoming Mars Sample Return (MSR) mission.

Mars Sample Return: Bringing Mars Rock Samples Back to Earth

Read more
How NASA’s Mars InSight lander mission will end
This selfie of NASA’s InSight lander is a mosaic made up of 14 images taken on March 15 and April 11 – the 106th and 133rd Martian days, or sols, of the mission – by the spacecraft Instrument Deployment Camera located on its robotic arm.

NASA's InSight Mars lander reached the red planet four years ago and has worked well beyond the two years originally set for the mission. But in the coming weeks or perhaps months, the lander will make its final communications with Earth before falling silent for the rest of time.

A gradual accumulation of Martian dust on the lander’s solar panels has reduced its ability to retain power, and so it will soon be unable to continue its seismology work gathering data about the red planet’s interior.

Read more
Curiosity rover investigates salty region of Mars for clues of life
NASA's Curiosity Mars rover used its Mast Camera, or Mastcam, to capture this panorama of a hill nicknamed Bolívar and adjacent sand ridges on Aug. 23, the 3,572nd Martian day, or sol, of the mission.

When it comes to hunting for evidence of ancient life on Mars, some key features that scientists want to explore are areas with high levels of sulfate minerals. These salts form in the presence of water, so even though Mars is dry today, finding these minerals now indicates that there was once water in the region. And areas of water are places where life is most likely to have developed. So it's an exciting time when a Mars rover reaches an area high in sulfates, and the Curiosity rover recently arrived at one such location on Mount Sharp in the Gale Crater.

The sulfates had been identified from orbit by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter years ago as a key target for Curiosity to explore, and the rover has already identified a variety of rock types and salt minerals in the area including magnesium sulfate, calcium sulfate, and sodium chloride or table salt.

Read more