Aug. 13, 2012 at 8:59 PM ET
NASA's Curiosity rover is almost fully reprogrammed for its two-year, $2.5 billion science mission on Mars, and mission managers say it should be ready to take its first short drive in about a week.
The final phase of Curiosity's four-day software transition was getting under way today, NASA spokesman Guy Webster said. The software for science operations, known as R10, has already been installed successfully on the rover's primary computer and is currently managing the rover's functions. All that remained was to finish installing the same software on the backup computer.
The software switchover called for removing the thousands of lines of code that were required for managing Curiosity's flight from Earth to Mars, as well as the instructions for the entry, descent and landing sequence known as the "seven minutes of terror." The R10 software package instead provides Curiosity with full use of its autonomous driving system and all the tools on its robotic arm. Curiosity's 4 gigabytes of data storage capacity wasn't enough to hold the entire software suite in its brain simultaneously.
The rover team put science operations on the back burner during the reprogramming.
"After the software transition, we go back to preparing the rover to be fully functional for surface operations," mission manager Art Thompson said today in a news release. "We are looking forward to the first drive in about a week."
The first short drive will be part of a routine to check out the rover's equipment as well as the characteristics of the landing site in Gale Crater.
Over the weekend, the Curiosity team released a partial panorama incorporating 79 high-resolution pictures from the rover's Mastcam imaging system. Each picture in the mosaic measures 1,200 by 1,200 pixels — and the full-resolution panorama, including the black patches of missing data, amounted to more than 120 megapixels.
Even the limited view strengthened the impression that Gale Crater was reminiscent of California's Mojave Desert. One part of the picture shows a section of the crater wall, north of the landing site, where a network of valleys enters Gale Crater from the outside. NASA's image advisory says this is the first view that scientists have had of a one-time river system from the Martian surface.
One big difference between Gale and Mojave is the presence of a 3-mile-high (5-kilometer-high) mountain in the middle of the Martian crater, known as Mount Sharp or Aeolis Mons. The partial panorama doesn't show the full rise of the mountain to its peak, but even the limited view shows a dark, distant dune field, and then the layered buttes and mesas of the mountain's environs farther beyond.
Eventually, scientists plan to send Curiosity up the mountainside to document billions of years of geological history on Mars. During the odyssey during which the rover will use a laser zapper, a drill, an onboard laboratory and other scientific instruments to determine how hospitable the region was to life in ancient times.
Curiosity's primary mission is due to last an entire Martian year, the equivalent of nearly two Earth years, but scientists hope the nuclear-powered rover will last even longer. The rover team is due to discuss the road ahead during a media teleconference at 1 p.m. ET (10 a.m. PT) Tuesday. Audio of the event will be streamed live online via NASA's website.
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Alan Boyle is NBCNews.com's science editor. Connect with the Cosmic Log community by "liking" the log's Facebook page, following @b0yle on Twitter and adding the Cosmic Log page to your Google+ presence. To keep up with Cosmic Log as well as NBC News' other stories about science and space, sign up for the Tech & Science newsletter, delivered to your email in-box every weekday. You can also check out "The Case for Pluto," my book about the controversial dwarf planet and the search for new worlds.