NASA engineers have given Mars rover Curiosity a software upgrade and are now checking wear and tear on the one-tonne robot’s wheels caused by the rugged Martian surface.

The wheels of Curiosity rover are sustaining damage at an increasing rate, NASA said.

“Curiosity is now operating on version 11 of its flight software,” said Jim Erickson of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

This is the third upgrade version since Curiosity’s landing on Mars 16 months ago. Completing the switch from version 10 took about a week, NASA said.

An earlier switch to version 11 prompted an unintended reboot on November 7 and a return to version 10, but the latest transition went smoothly.

These upgrades allow continued advances in the rover’s capabilities. For example, version 11 brings expanded capability for using the Curiosity’s robotic arm while the vehicle is on slopes.

It also improves flexibility for storing information overnight to use in resuming autonomous driving on a second day.

An upcoming activity will be driving to a relatively smooth patch of ground to take a set of images of Curiosity’s aluminium wheels, using the Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) camera at the end of the rover’s arm.

“We want to take a full inventory of the condition of the wheels. Dents and holes were anticipated, but the amount of wear appears to have accelerated in the past month or so,” Erickson said.

“It appears to be correlated with driving over rougher terrain. The wheels can sustain significant damage without impairing the rover’s ability to drive. However, we would like to understand the impact that this terrain type has on the wheels, to help with planning future drives,” said Erickson.

Curiosity’s recent driving has crossed an area that has numerous sharp rocks embedded in the ground.

Routes to future destinations for the mission may be charted to lessen the amount of travel over such rough terrain, compared to smoother ground nearby.

NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory Project is using Curiosity inside Gale Crater to assess ancient habitable environments and major changes in Martian environmental conditions.

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