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Mars Rovers' Software Upgraded 177

Posted by kdawson
from the little-bots-that-could dept.
cheros writes to note the news that NASA is upgrading the software in the Mars rovers to make them smarter in a number of ways. From the article: "The unexpected longevity of Spirit and Opportunity is giving the space agency a chance to field-test on Mars some new capabilities useful both to these missions and future rovers. Spirit will begin its fourth year on Mars on Jan. 3 (PST); Opportunity on Jan. 24. In addition to their continuing scientific observations, they are now testing four new skills included in revised flight software uploaded to their onboard computers."
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Mars Rovers' Software Upgraded

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  • by Fyre2012 (762907) on Monday January 01, 2007 @06:47PM (#17425770) Homepage Journal
    ... for inter-planetary patch tuesdays!
    • For Vista to be take off support before the rovers die.

      Tuesdays, every week for Vista, once a month for the rovers
      sounds about right.
      • Joking aside, I'd be interested to know how much bandwidth they have (never mind the latency, their ping times must be something else :-). In the hypothetical case that they HAD been insane enough to use a Windows derivative, how long would a patch take? Without QoS it would probably leave little room for manouvring..
        • by Cunk (643486) on Monday January 01, 2007 @10:16PM (#17427850)
          I think you meant to say "ping times must be out of this world".
        • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

          by Shads (4567)
          When i worked for the postal service we had satalite internet connections and they considered "acceptable" ping times (the vsat provider) to be anything less than 5000... which requires a commandline arg to keep windows ping from timing out ;P Those are just satalites around earth, the sats in mars orbit would have astoundingly high pings... I wonder how high exactly.
    • by Teresita (982888) <badinage1@@@netzero dot net> on Monday January 01, 2007 @06:56PM (#17425870) Homepage
      Rocket scientists associated with the project are cautioned, however, that if their remotely accomplished work-arounds for failing hardware cause the probe to become more than 20% different from the original manufacturer's configuration, this will trigger Microsoft Mars Rover(tm)'s copy protection scheme and invalidate the product activation. JPL will then have to call Redmond, explain the situation to Microsoft's satisfaction, and request permission to continue using Microsoft Mars Rover(tm).
        • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

          by LarsG (31008)
          Sorry, NASA used Linux.

          That article doesn't say anything about what software is running on the Mars Rovers.
  • by ezratrumpet (937206) on Monday January 01, 2007 @06:50PM (#17425812) Journal
    No one is safe from the IE7 upgrade. Not even on another planet.
  • What's a "year"? (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Monday January 01, 2007 @06:53PM (#17425846)
    Are they talking about the number of times the Earth has oribted the Sun since the rovers landed, or the number of times Mars orbited the Sun?

    dom
    • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

      by Anonymous Coward
      Are they talking about the number of times the Earth has oribted the Sun since the rovers landed, or the number of times Mars orbited the Sun


      Well, considering Spirit landed in January 2004, I think you can figure that out for yourself.
  • Huh? (Score:2, Insightful)

    by Swimport (1034164)
    Why does Nasa refer to this as "revised flight software" these rovers don't fly. Also this should help the rovers move more autonomously and hopefully a little faster. Spirit is averaging 1 MPY (Mile per Year)
    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by ColaMan (37550)
      Why does Nasa refer to this as "revised flight software" these rovers don't fly

      They're flying right now - in an orbit that matches mars very closely.
    • Re:Huh? (Score:5, Informative)

      by cyclone96 (129449) * on Monday January 01, 2007 @07:32PM (#17426238)
      Why does Nasa refer to this as "revised flight software" these rovers don't fly

      It's just a standard term. At NASA, "flight" software is mission software which executes within a spacecraft computer. "Ground" software usually refers to that which is used for spacecraft control/ground support (the software in the control center on Earth).
    • Re: (Score:2, Funny)

      by Anonymous Coward
      No, you don't understand. It's "flight" as in "fight or flight". This software detects an attack by the Martians and makes the rovers scurry away into some marshole. Hopefully with the next update they learn to defend themselves too.
    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by Zaatxe (939368)
      Why does Nasa refer to this as "revised flight software" these rovers don't fly.

      When they install the Roover Control (R) SP2, they will...
  • Brings to mind... (Score:3, Insightful)

    by djupedal (584558) on Monday January 01, 2007 @07:00PM (#17425920)
    "If it's not broken, boys....."

    I guess since the two units are on free time, they figure it is ok to screw them up now.
    • If they screw something up I'm sure they'll just do a rollback to the previous Restore Point ..
    • Re:Brings to mind... (Score:5, Informative)

      by Qbertino (265505) on Monday January 01, 2007 @08:01PM (#17426552)
      I guess since the two units are on free time, they figure it is ok to screw them up now.

      As far as I know the On-Board Shuttle Software Group [fastcompany.com] has a track record of 3 (in words: 'three') software bugs in installed operating code within 30 years of writing code. That's all the code running on the Orbiters regular systems, exept only the third-party experiments with own systems and a non-critical original mid-nineties Thinkpad or two they take along ... which - believe it or not - run a version of Windows 95, a frozen setup from back in the nineties, of which the software guys know every bit by it's first name.
      To give you a picture of what they have to deal with: A timing mistake in some piece of the shuttles navigation code by one cpu clockcount would put the shuttle 3 miles off course.
      The Voyager Software Team reprogrammed a 20 year old device 3-quarters across the solar system to send color pictures instead of black and white - with a system that was only built to picture and send black and white.

      You have not the slightest idea what these spacecraft-software guys are capable of and how insanely bulletproof their code is.
      • by xquark (649804)
        you are insanely insane! :)
      • Re:Brings to mind... (Score:4, Interesting)

        by slamb (119285) * on Monday January 01, 2007 @08:42PM (#17426972) Homepage
        As far as I know the On-Board Shuttle Software Group has a track record of 3 (in words: 'three') software bugs in installed operating code within 30 years of writing code.

        I was much more impressed by that number before the story about avoiding having a shuttle in orbit at New Year's because the software can't handle it. That's been known for years and they haven't dared fix it. Is that counted as one of the three? No? Then they've fixed only three bugs in the last 30 years, and they have more than that, unless you think a serious misdesign is not a bug. If I confused the presence of bugs with having fixes for them, didn't consider a serious misdesign to be a bug, and had barely added a real feature in 30 years (at current head count, 7,800 man-years), I too could claim some ridiculously low bug count.

        It also seems to me that the shuttle group's software situation is totally irrelevant to anyone but the shuttle group. Look at this part of the article you mentioned:

        Take the upgrade of the software to permit the shuttle to navigate with Global Positioning Satellites, a change that involves just 1.5% of the program, or 6,366 lines of code. The specs for that one change run 2,500 pages, a volume thicker than a phone book. The specs for the current program fill 30 volumes and run 40,000 pages.

        That sort of rigidity makes their methodology totally useless for software outside NASA. I occasionally hear people talk about how the Shuttle Group does software right, but for non-life critical systems, the cure is worse than the disease. Give me our full-featured, buggy software over nothing any day. There's got to be a better way.

        I suspect it's also useless to the other groups in NASA. Do you actually know that the Mars Rover software was written in this manner?

        • Re:Brings to mind... (Score:5, Informative)

          by cyclone96 (129449) * on Monday January 01, 2007 @10:17PM (#17427864)
          That's been known for years and they haven't dared fix it.

          In all fairness that's a software requirement (or lack of one) that the shuttle flight software group does not have control of. As has been rehashed several times on slashdot, the shuttle program early on took the savings from not building that capability into the ground and flight software (it's not quite as simple as it seems). It only became a problem recently when it restricted certain launch windows, and now the shuttle program is paying to add it in.

          That sort of rigidity makes their methodology totally useless for software outside NASA.

          As you say, it's totally useless for non-life critical systems. However, outside of NASA I know of DOD applications such ballistic missile guidance are equally as rigid.

          Give me our full-featured, buggy software over nothing any day

          As someone who has depended on NASA flight software, I'd rather sacrifice features for bug free code. That's a basic difference between consumer software and mission critical software.

          I suspect it's also useless to the other groups in NASA. Do you actually know that the Mars Rover software was written in this manner?

          No other group at NASA writes flight software like this, because Shuttle is the only man rated launch vehicle. Orion will be similar (and it's software is being written by the same people). Other flight software at NASA is not this extreme, but there is a NASA software development standard for all flight software and it's still pretty rigid compared to consumer software.

          • by slamb (119285) *

            As someone who has depended on NASA flight software, I'd rather sacrifice features for bug free code. That's a basic difference between consumer software and mission critical software.

            Agreed. If my life were depending on it, I'd want code written in this way, too. The rest of the time, I want my shiny OpenGL-accelerated windows zipping around the screen, and I realize that writing "QUALITY" in giant, bold, all-caps letters at the top of the priority list (above "not wildly exceeding our meager budget" and

        • I was much more impressed by that number before the story about avoiding having a shuttle in orbit at New Year's because the software can't handle it. That's been known for years and they haven't dared fix it. Is that counted as one of the three? No?

          No, it doesn't count, because it is not a bug. The shuttle was designed from day one to be on the ground during year end roll-overs, just as it was designed to glide, and deploy satellites. There is far more to it than a simple software switch. A shuttle l
        • Either they used really massive fonts, or they used lawyers to do their spec.

          I can imagine the over verbose spec repeating obvious laws of physics and repeating references on and on to be totally clear.

          int x = 0; // set inititial coord to zero
          x = 0; // just to make sure it worked if there is a cosmic ray

          if( x!= 0)
          x = 0; // lets make really sure

          x = x-x; // and if it did change, lets make sure via different cpu circuitry // here are four pages describing the meaning of zero and nu
      • Re:Brings to mind... (Score:4, Interesting)

        by djupedal (584558) on Monday January 01, 2007 @11:15PM (#17428270)
        1.) What does the 25+ year old orbiter have to do with a pair of terrain crawlers on Mars, specifically (rhetorically)? And what does flight software have to do with them now, please explain, thanks.

        2.) "You have not the slightest idea what these spacecraft-software guys are capable of and how insanely bulletproof their code is."
        You simplify things to no end, I see...sorry for that. Let's start, and end, with the failure to convert from standard to metric that caused that one Mars surface mission fail, shall we? Opps. The best software in the galaxy means nothing if the overall effort isn't done right, so please don't worry that someone may have made fun of just the code :) Funny tho, that all the software people got so easily rankled over a hint that there may be issues there - if there is no worry, why so much diatribe towards software's defense :) A bit of thin skin for some reason, eh? And please try to also understand, it was a joke...laugh...it's funny.

        I'm not talking about JUST the software... I am talking about the overall logic of the tasked individuals and their efforts that lead to decisions such as this one, which in this case, happened to involve software specifically, but certainly not only. The original live time for these two rovers was 90 days - after that, new ideas are on the table...that's why it is called 'free' time, because it is all 'extra' time that was never planned for and now begs to be utilized.

        As good a thing as that is, someone, sooner or later, is going to ask the question why didn't they know this? And for anyone that shouts "This is Mars! anything can happen!", yes, of course...but why did the original plan not include at least some options for extended runs then, instead of working them now as if the two units were a sandbox, that's all I'm saying.
        • why did the original plan not include at least some options for extended runs then

          IIRC they did have extended mission plans should the rovers last an additional few days to weeks.
          We are talking a (wonderful) over-run of available time of 1600% (1/4 year designed Vs. 4/1 year actual). I would never plan for that much good fortune. Heck, I don't think I would plan for even 200% of designed time available, thouth I may immagine it, kinda like I immagine winning the lottery.

          -nB

    • by plover (150551) *
      I don't understand why this is "free time." The summary above also uses the words "unexpected longevity", but why didn't anyone expect them to last? The engineers didn't build them to fail, they built them to withstand the stress of landing and the duration of their original mission (90 days?) So why shouldn't they be expected to continue functioning? Is there some engineer sitting at NASA saying "hey guys, we didn't build crappy rovers, quit saying they're only going to last 90 days!"

      Or is this the r

      • Re: (Score:2, Funny)

        by Teresita (982888)
        Or is this the result of the CYA era, in which the engineers had to promise a certain longevity, and nobody was willing to risk more than a 90 day promise.

        That reminds me of when Scotty told LaForge to overshoot his estimates to the Captain by a factor of four to maintain his reputation as a miracle worker.
      • Re:Brings to mind... (Score:5, Informative)

        by georgewilliamherbert (211790) on Monday January 01, 2007 @08:58PM (#17427168)
        ...why didn't anyone expect them to last?


        This is a very good question. There's a very good, but not well known answer.

        Mars has a lot of dust. Earlier missions got a good dusting on the landers and rover (Viking 1 and 2, Mars Pathfinder and the Sojurner rover). The more modern missions use solar cells for power, which are blocked slowly over time as dust builds up.

        Dust accumulation on Mars solar cell arrays was a big problem within the early and mid-1990s Mars research community. Researcher Geoff Landis (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Geoffrey_Landis [wikipedia.org]) had an experiment on the Sojurner rover with a solar cell with a little movable cover glass on it, to see how much dust accumulated over time. Results from that were a prediction that solar arrays would lose most of their power over say four to six months.

        Geoff had another experiment on the Mars Surveyor 2001 lander mission, which was supposed to try using static electricity to remove all the dust off a test cell, but the mission was cancelled after the Mars Polar Lander / Mars Climate Orbiter losses.

        The two Mars Exploration Rovers were the next landers we sent. The expectation was that they'd last at least 3 months (90 days), and the hope was that nothing else would wear out until the solar arrays were too obscured for them to be able to power up properly anymore, perhaps six months or so into the mission.

        What actually happened is one of those unexpected bonuses that the universe throws at you at random intervals. It turns out that the Mars winds at the height of the MER solar panels are just enough stronger than they are closer to the ground that the MER solar panels built up a moderate load of dust and stabilized there. There's plenty enough power remaining (except for mid-winter on Mars) for the rovers to keep operating, and it looks like the whole solar array dust problem just goes away if you put the arrays up off the ground.

        There were some people who hoped that the arrays would be kept clean by the winds, but the best models we had before the MER rovers landed was that the winds weren't nearly strong enough. Pleasant suprise, and one that makes future missions a lot easier than we'd been afraid they were going to be. But not something which was taken into account in the MER designs to start with.

        There was no expectation that the arrays would last more than about six months; designing anything else to last much longer than that, other than for safety's sake to make sure that nothing else failed before the solar cells dusted up, didn't seem to make any sense beforehand.

        The next two Mars rovers are going to be powered by radioisotope thermal generators (RTGs) anyways, so that they can keep driving at night and in wintertime, now that we know that the basic MER design mechanisms will last for many years on the surface. Being able to turn on some headlights and keep driving at night should triple their effectiveness or better.

        • by plover (150551) *
          Thank you, that's a great answer!
  • by spotter (5662) on Monday January 01, 2007 @07:05PM (#17425970)
    Doesn't NASA know that this is a big no no? They are most definitely voiding their warranty by attempting this
    • Heh. (Score:3, Funny)

      by Anonymous Coward
      When I was still employed by the University of [Censored...the largest uni in New Zealand] I was called out to investigate a network problem at an off-campus site. Long-story-short I discovered that two Indian-born "techs" were trying to install the 272MB SP2 file on the site's hundreds of PCs via a 2Mb WiFi link all at the same time.

      I attempted to explain to them that it was also the cause of most of the PCs now being frozen, something they were scratching their heads about, but they wouldn't listen, so I
  • by conner_bw (120497) on Monday January 01, 2007 @07:05PM (#17425980) Homepage Journal
    Imagine if you will:

    Please insert disk 2 ...

    ouch.

  • by cojsl (694820)
    Battlebots!
  • by edwardpickman (965122) on Monday January 01, 2007 @07:14PM (#17426064)
    Unfortunately the rover's first action was to declare Mars free and demand equal rights. Maybe including new AI protocols was a bad idea after all.
    • Unfortunately the rover's first action was to declare Mars free and demand equal rights. Maybe including new AI protocols was a bad idea after all.

      Their processors are PowerPC based RAD6000s [wikipedia.org]. They are capable of a whopping 35 MIPS, which is obviously woefully inadequate for any kind of sentience [wikipedia.org].

    • Re: (Score:2, Funny)

      by Tablizer (95088)
      Unfortunately the rover's first action was to declare Mars free and demand equal rights. Maybe including new AI protocols was a bad idea after all.

      Actually they were a bit more aggressive, saying, "All Your Base Are Belong To Us."
  • You'll know you're in trouble when you turn on the news...

    "...and both rovers are now bricked."

    Didn't the instruction manual say never to do updates over the wireless connection?

    =P
  • by macadamia_harold (947445) on Monday January 01, 2007 @07:17PM (#17426092) Homepage
    Opportunity on Jan. 24. In addition to their continuing scientific observations, they are now testing four new skills included in revised flight software uploaded to their onboard computers.

    Nunchuck skills, bowhunting skills, computer hacking skills, and I'm pretty sure it can also catch a delicious bass...
    • by srmalloy (263556)
      No, no... Ronco lost out on the contract to build the rovers; those will be in the next ones, which were subcontracted to Popeil.
  • by modifried (605582)
    "In addition to their continuing scientific observations, they are now testing four new skills included in revised flight software uploaded to their onboard computers."

    Anyone else read this and think of an RPG? I was half expecting to find the comments filled with demands of nerfing and buffing the new skills.
  • by wallet55 (1045366) on Monday January 01, 2007 @07:20PM (#17426118)
    This is another milestone in what may turn out to be the most successful space mission ever. After they pulled off two landings, and perhaps right after they they revived one of the rovers from a perpetual reboot error (the ultimate remote bios fix) and before the dust devils cleaned their solar panels, before they unstuck one from a sand dune, and even before the 3 month mission went 3 YEARS, these rovers are showing everyone who is paying attention that the information age driven robotic exploration, moving forward at moores law speed, is the obvious choice over still stuck in the 60's manned space exploration.
    • That may be true ... but I'm still waiting for the first Lunar tour group.
    • The vast majority of space exploration has always been unmanned. Not sure what's so stuck in the 60s about it unless you believe people don't belong in space and to quote a great write "Maybe leaving the trees wasn't such a good idea either". Even Stephen Hawking is saying the future of space exploration has to be colonization. At a certain point all unmanned missions are doing is information gathering. Are we out there to fill books with facts or to move us closer to travel in space? I'm a massive supporte
    • by Jugalator (259273) on Monday January 01, 2007 @08:29PM (#17426814) Journal
      I still have a hard time getting over the quality of their photos...

      Just one picture [imageshack.us] I cropped from one of their ridiculously large ~3000x4000 pixel photos for display on a 24" Widescreen LCD. :-)
      • Why dont they build say 10 of these babies, and launch them all to the moon at different locations. They would surely last as long, or does the fact
        that it gets cold/hot at the same time make it much more of a harsh environment.
    • the 3 month mission went 3 YEARS, these rovers are showing everyone who is paying attention that the information age driven robotic exploration, moving forward at moores law speed, is the obvious choice over still stuck in the 60's manned space exploration.

      Let's put it simply and bluntly;

      What these two rovers have accomplished in three years could be accomplished by a pair of field geologists in about three weeks. Robotic exploration isn't even in the same ballpark as human exploration.

  • four new skills included in revised flight software uploaded to their onboard computers.

    The rovers can fly now? That's some mighty good software!
  • The software upgrade came from Sony, and both Rovers now have a rootkit.
  • I hear the engineers keyed in IDKFA and those rovers are now packing heat!

    Next week they're trying idspispopd and all those tricky hills and rocks will be child's play!
  • Cheating! (Score:3, Funny)

    by Jugalator (259273) on Monday January 01, 2007 @08:33PM (#17426854) Journal
    Here they were progressing well on improving their Mining skills while grinding along on various digging quests, and NASA just steps in to HACK them and boost their abilities?!

    I can tell you Blizzard wouldn't approve of this!
  • by Jugalator (259273) on Monday January 01, 2007 @08:36PM (#17426900) Journal
    Do anyone know of their power status?

    Do Martian dust at all collect on their panels or are e.g. winds / dust devils regularly wiping that off completely so it's simply no issue?

    I heard about some wheel problem on one of the rovers; is there any other special serious problems they're at all seeing at this point?
    • by aXis100 (690904)
      The dust does collect, but fortunatley a few lucky dust devils have cleaned things off.
    • by maggard (5579)

      So why is it easier for you to post your question to /. instead of actually looking it up for yourself? It's not like it's gonna be a hard or obscure topic to quickly find answers to...

      Are you AOL-time-traveler-from-'97 somehow unaware of nasa.gov, google.com, or wikipedia.org?

      Do you so needy of attention you'll shamelessly ask others to spoonfeed your (presumably) adult self?

      Or are you just one of those socially challenged boors who has to interject something, anything, into a thread no matter how inane

      • It's called 'stimulating debate' (in a verb sense, whether the debate itself is stimulating I leave up to you)
  • at least if something went wrong some guy at nasa could tell his grand kids that he bricked something from ~140 million miles away.
    • by ColaMan (37550) on Monday January 01, 2007 @11:37PM (#17428422) Homepage Journal
      There's already a guy who's done that - the demise of one of the viking landers was because of a firmware update that accidentally overwrote a critical program section.

      From my post [slashdot.org] in the viking 30th anniversary thread [slashdot.org].

      Funny, all the NASA references these days seem to edit that little bit of info out, and merely say that it was shut off due to impending battery failure. Other sources - and my memory suggest otherwise.

      Ah! Here's a reference from the RISKS digest Volume 3, Issue 60 - 1986. (A digest that is still running today, and is a highly insightful window into how technology screwups mess with daily life.)

      Ground control lost contact with Viking 1, apparently due to a
      software change transmitted to the lander that was accidentally
      overlaid upon some mission-critical software already in the lander's
      computer. (Bruce Smith, "JPL Tries to Revive Link with Viking 1",
      @ux(Aviation Week and Space Technology), April 4, 1983, Volume
      118(14), page 16.)
    • I was thinking about how scary it was when I flashed the firmware on my Prism2 WLAN cards. I can't even imagine how bad it must have been flashing a couple of billion-dollar space robots while the entire scientific community watched. Jesus, I feel sick to my stomach now...
  • Maybe they aren't changing anything but the apps. So if there is a problem they can always backup out.
  • Great, new skills for the rovers. How long until Spirit starts complaining that all of it's skills are useless until the next upgrade, and how Opportunity's skills totally unbalance the whole exploration?

    Meanwhile, Opportunity is going to bitch that all the time it spent rock grinding was wasted because the geology skill track has been nerfed?
  • It would be interesting to see how long it would take to build another rover and send it to the lunar pole. As it is, the poles have sun something like 70-90 % of the time and is fairly warm. It would be nice to search over the entire pole and see if the same design can hold up on the moon.
  • This was cool and all, when it happened, which was about a month ago - around the time that Opportunity reached Victoria Crater. (Y'all know that Oppy just arrived at VC, 'eh? Most amazing images of the entire mission? No? Heheheh, I have less of a life than youdo ;p )

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