NASA's Curiosity Mars Rover Features Java-Based Simulator, Commercial Software Support

NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL) offers a Web-based, Java-powered simulator of the Curiosity Mars mission, while the rover itself is, in part, powered by Wind River's real-time operating system.

While NASA's most advanced Mars rover Curiosity successfully landed on the Red Planet, NASA€™s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) is offering mere mortals a chance at experiencing their own Mars landing with a Java-powered simulator.

The JPL€™s Java-based simulator, known as Eyes on the Solar System, takes users through the details of the landing procedure that NASA officials have termed the €œSeven Minutes of Terror.€ The Web-based simulator is available to anyone with a browser and enables users to go back and forward in time to get a better sense of what the Curiosity mission is like.

NASA said the one-ton rover, hanging by ropes from a rocket backpack, touched down onto Mars Sunday to end a 36-week flight and begin a two-year investigation. The Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) spacecraft that carried Curiosity succeeded in every step of the most complex landing ever attempted on Mars, including the final severing of the bridle cords and flyaway maneuver of the rocket backpack.

"Today, the wheels of Curiosity have begun to blaze the trail for human footprints on Mars. Curiosity, the most sophisticated rover ever built, is now on the surface of the Red Planet, where it will seek to answer age-old questions about whether life ever existed on Mars€”or if the planet can sustain life in the future," said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, in a statement. "This is an amazing achievement, made possible by a team of scientists and engineers from around the world and led by the extraordinary men and women of NASA and our Jet Propulsion Laboratory.€ He added that President Obama has laid out a bold vision for sending humans to Mars in the mid-2030s, and the Curiosity landing marks a significant step toward achieving that goal.

Curiosity landed at 10:32 p.m. PDT Aug. 5 (1:32 a.m. EDT Aug. 6) near the foot of a mountain 3 miles tall and 96 miles in diameter inside Gale Crater. During a nearly two-year prime mission, the rover will investigate whether the region ever offered conditions favorable for microbial life.

"The Seven Minutes of Terror has turned into the Seven Minutes of Triumph," said NASA Associate Administrator for Science John Grunsfeld. "My immense joy in the success of this mission is matched only by overwhelming pride I feel for the women and men of the mission's team."

Curiosity returned its first view of Mars, a wide-angle scene of rocky ground near the front of the rover. More images are anticipated in the next several days as the mission blends observations of the landing site with activities to configure the rover for work and check the performance of its instruments and mechanisms.

"Our Curiosity is talking to us from the surface of Mars," said MSL Project Manager Peter Theisinger of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, Calif. "The landing takes us past the most hazardous moments for this project, and begins a new and exciting mission to pursue its scientific objectives."

Curiosity carries 10 science instruments with a total mass 15 times as large as the science payloads on the Mars rovers Spirit and Opportunity. Some of the tools are the first of their kind on Mars, such as a laser-firing instrument for checking elemental composition of rocks from a distance. The rover will use a drill and scoop at the end of its robotic arm to gather soil and powdered samples of rock interiors, then sieve and parcel out these samples into analytical laboratory instruments inside the rover. To handle this science toolkit, Curiosity is twice as long and five times as heavy as Spirit or Opportunity. The Gale Crater landing site places the rover within driving distance of layers of the crater's interior mountain. Observations from orbit have identified clay and sulfate minerals in the lower layers, indicating a wet history.

Meanwhile, Wind River, a maker of embedded and mobile software, announced that the Curiosity rover is powered by Wind River technology. Curiosity is running on Wind River's real-time operating system (RTOS), VxWorks.

VxWorks plays a central role in the Curiosity mission by providing the core operating system for the spacecraft control system€”from the second the rocket left the Earth on Nov. 26, 2011, until the completion of the mission.

Curiosity relied on VxWorks for the complex landing sequence called EDL (entry, descent and landing), which requires absolute precision for the spacecraft to survive the landing. While on Mars, Curiosity will depend on VxWorks to perform mission-critical tasks, such as ground operations control, data collection and Mars-to-Earth communication relay.

Wind River officials said the company has an extensive heritage of achievements in space working with NASA JPL, dating back to 1994, when VxWorks launched into space on the Clementine Moon probe. This was followed by the Mars Pathfinder Mission, which made VxWorks the first commercial operating system to go to Mars. Wind River technology also operates within the Mars Exploration Rovers and Stardust spacecraft, among others.

"Wind River congratulates NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory on the successful landing of Curiosity on Mars, a groundbreaking milestone for space exploration worldwide,€ said Ken Klein, president of Wind River, in a statement. €œFor more than two decades, Wind River€™s reliable and secure software has served as a key foundational technology for aerospace organizations globally, and we are extremely proud to continue our legacy as a technology provider for NASA JPL€™s space programs.€