Curiosity rover 'brain transplant'

This image of Mars released by NASA shows Curiosity's main science target, Mt. Sharp. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/AFP/Getty Images / August 10, 2012)

The Curiosity rover’s landing wasn’t quite perfect -- but if the Martian robot were an Olympic gymnast, it could earn a gold medal for its gymnastic contortions, according to NASA engineers.

The Mars Science Laboratory’s climactic Aug. 5 landing essentially happened on autopilot, with scientists and engineers in the control room at Jet Propulsion Laboratory waiting several minutes as the rover’s signals traveled the roughly 150 million miles back to Earth.

But Curiosity ended up roughly 1.5 miles away from its predicted touchdown zone – not bad, given that their projected landing zone was an ellipse 12 miles wide, mission engineers said Friday.

“We flew this right down the middle,” said engineer Steve Sell. “It’s absolutely incredible to have worked on a plan for so many years and then just see everything happen exactly according to plan.”

The scientists and engineers even set up a bingo game on a 10-foot-long sheet, where scientists could stick their best guess as to where the rover would finally land. Chief engineer Rob Manning won the game, pinning his guess in square number 51 in the landing ellipse.

“We believe he may have rigged the system,” joked team member Devin Kipp, responsible for building the supersonic parachute.  (Manning received the ribbing good-naturedly – he was suspected of such shenanigans because he’d also been a "gremlin" for the mission, devising disastrous situations for the engineers to face in practice runs of the rover landing.)

Next up for the rover is a four-day "brain transplant." Engineers will be updating Curiosity’s software – currently primed for its flight stage – to prepare it for its Martian surface operations.

The update, which has been downloaded to the rover but not yet installed, will add two crucial functions: the ability to use the sampling system and to drive the rover.

The update had to wait until Curiosity landed because its processor, built years ago to withstand the harsh environment of interplanetary space, is limited compared with today’s consumer technology, explained senior software engineer Ben Cichy.

“My phone has a processor that is 10 times as fast as the processor that’s on Curiosity and has 16 times as much storage as Curiosity has,” Cichy said.

“And my phone doesn’t have to land anything on Mars. All my phone has to do is follow Bobak’s Twitter feed,” he joked as Bobak Ferdowsi – a mission flight director who gained Internet celebrity status for his striking stars-and-stripes mohawk – laughed and shook his head.

In the meantime, as the rover goes under the digital knife in the proverbial operating room for the next four days, many scientists will be taking a break and getting used to their newfound fame.

“I got recognized in a pizza parlor on Wednesday,” said systems engineer Allen Chen, who emceed the Sunday night landing on Mars. “That was a little weird for me.”

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