NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell University; (inset) NASA/JPL-Caltech

ScienceShot: Mars Rover Growing Older But Wiser

Here's a case of software beta-testing in truly real-world—make that otherworldly—conditions. NASA recently uploaded powerful new programming into the computer aboard its Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity. Unlike its counterpart Spirit, which has bogged down in Martian sand, Opportunity is still rolling freely across the red planet after 6 years. The software, called Autonomous Exploration for Gathering Increased Science, enables Opportunity to choose autonomously which rocks to investigate. With it, the rover can quickly select rocks that show the most interesting characteristics, such as the football-shaped specimen above. This replaces the old system, wherein the rover would transmit images of a field of rocks back to mission controllers, they would decide which individual rock to investigate, and then send back the commands to the rover's computer. And by uploading the software now, NASA can thoroughly test the programming before installing it aboard the Curiosity rover, currently scheduled to launch toward Mars in October 2011.