NASA Mars rover Curiosity

The left front wheel of NASA's Mars rover Curiosity shows dents and holes that could have been the result of sharp rocks on rough terrain, officials at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory say. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS / December 23, 2013)

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NASA’s Mars rover Curiosity has gotten a brand new software upgrade, but the intrepid robot’s wheels are a little worse for wear.

Officials at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in La Cañada Flintridge reported last week that they upgraded Curiosity’s software as it headed toward Mt. Sharp, the 3-mile-high mound in the middle of Gale Crater.

The laser-shooting laboratory on wheels has already found habitable environments suitable for certain Earth-like microbes. They hope that Mt. Sharp’s clay-rich layers could be awash in clues as to exactly how life-friendly the Red Planet could have been.

This upgrade, known as Version 11, would be the third for the Mars Science Laboratory rover since it touched down in Gale Crater in August 2012. Curiosity underwent a major brain transplant shortly after landing to replace its flight-mode software with programming better suited for hoofing it on wheels.

2013: The Year in Science

Among other changes, the latest software upgrade improves Curiosity’s ability to use its robotic arm on slopes when it reaches Mt. Sharp.

But unlike software, Curiosity’s hardware can’t be repaired or upgraded from afar. And so the team paid attention when a Nov. 30 photo taken by the rover’s Mars Hand Lens Imager revealed dents and holes pocking Curiosity’s left front wheel -- a sign of increased wear and tear on the rover’s thin aluminum wheels in recent weeks.

The roving robot has been traversing terrain riddled with sharp rocks recently, which could be to blame for the accelerated damage.

“The wheels can sustain significant damage without impairing the rover's ability to drive,” Mars Science Laboratory project manager Jim Erickson said in a statement. “However, we would like to understand the impact that this terrain type has on the wheels, to help with planning future drives.”

Curiosity’s handlers may try to reroute the rover around such rough, rocky patches on its approximately 5.3-mile path to Mt. Sharp. And they plan to stop on a nice flat patch in a relatively smooth spot sometime soon and use the camera to get a full picture of the wheel damage.

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