Think Windows patches are a pain? Try to patch a Mars rover millions of miles away

NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover on August 5, 2015. Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

Software updates can be tricky. Now imagine updating old technology on a device millions of miles away in space. Such is the magnitude of the challenge facing NASA IT professionals.

More than ten years ago, NASA’s Curiosity rover landed on Mars. Around the same time, if you were using Windows, you were using Windows 7. In computer years, a decade is a very long time. Today, there is a good chance that you are using Windows 11. So what is the operating system used by Curiosity? The answer is that he still uses VxWorks from Wind River.

VxWorks is a popular real-time embedded operating system. On Curiosity, it runs a 200 MHz PowerPC RAD750 microprocessor, which is the radiation-resistant version of the venerable PowerPC 750 chip. These chips were last used in terrestrial computers such as Apple’s iMac G3 models. from 1999.

Enable the Mars Explorer to drive faster and minimize wheel wear

Why did NASA use such old and slow chips? The answer is that it was easier to use them in hardware designed to withstand cosmic rays. The chips feature two gigabytes of flash memory, 256 megabytes of RAM, and 256 kilobytes of erasable programmable read-only memory (EPROM).

Like most people, you’ve probably updated your PC at least three times since 2012. But that’s a luxury NASA doesn’t have. After all, there are no PC repairmen in space.

That’s why it took years to install a groundbreaking software update on Curiosity. Enough to allow the Martian explorer to drive faster and minimize the wear of its wheels.

The update has about 180 changes

The update, which features around 180 changes, required a brief hiatus to Curiosity’s science and imaging operations between April 3 and April 7. This patch is small in size: just under 22 MB. Nevertheless, it is a complete replacement of the old operating system and the update was downloaded in 51 files.

The patch download was slow. At its maximum speed, Curiosity can download at 256 Kbps. For context, you probably haven’t seen such slow speeds since the last time you used a modem. In this case, the download took 10 days. The actual installation took four days in April.

Then, once everything was verified, Curiosity was finally ready to use its new operating system. His old operating system had been stored in memory, so if something had gone wrong, it wouldn’t have taken days to reboot.

“Think while driving”

This deployment is a significant achievement. The patch has been planned since 2016, when Curiosity’s latest software revision was released. Kathya Zamora-Garcia, Curiosity Project Manager at Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), explained the scope of the update: “Flight software is critical to our mission, so it’s a big deal for our team. ”

The patch brings a whole host of improvements, ranging from minor tweaks in communication to more efficient computer code.

The biggest difference between the old software version and the new one is that this update allows Curiosity to “think while driving” more efficiently, which is similar to its younger counterpart, Perseverance. The upgraded version of Curiosity can now process images faster, allowing it to spend more time on the move.

More rational driving experience

Jonathan Denison of JPL, Curiosity’s technical operations team leader, explained that while the rover won’t reach the speed of Perseverance, there is a performance advantage: “Spending less Idling time between workout segments also means we use less energy each day.” He added that the nearly 11-year-old rover continues to adopt innovative strategies to maximize the energy available for scientific activities.

The update also addresses the issue of wheel wear, which first appeared in 2013. The new software introduces two mobility controls that minimize the amount of steering needed, accelerating the rover’s progress and reducing wheel wear. its wheels.

This advancement allows Curiosity’s human operators to benefit from a more streamlined driving experience. This is a significant change, as Curiosity previously had to stop for long minutes between driving segments. Denison explained what this streamlined experience means: “Curiosity won’t be able to drive as fast as Perseverance, but instead of stopping for a full minute after a driving segment, we’ll only stop for a moment.

Of course, the biggest news is that the fix was successful. No one wants to troubleshoot a blue screen of death 143 million miles from Earth. Denison expressed his relief and satisfaction with the success of the software update, admitting that “the idea of ​​hitting the install button to install the patch was not easy”: “The idea of “pressing the install button was a little scary. Despite all our testing, we never know exactly what will happen until the software is installed.”

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