Mars Curiosity back in safe mode after second computer glitch


NASA's Curiosity rover has suffered another computer glitch, forcing project scientists to put it back into safe mode while they fix the problem.

Curiosity has been plagued with problems over the past few weeks. First it suffered a failure of its 'A-side' computer, which delayed operations while the mission scientists brought the rover's 'B-side' computer online and got it up to speed to take over. Then, the next week, a massive coronal mass ejection exploded from the surface of the Sun, headed right at Mars, so just to be safe, the engineers powered the rover down until the CME passed by the planet. Now the rover is back in safe mode due to another computer glitch.

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"This is not something which is rare or extraordinary," said John Grotzinger, chief scientists for the Curiosity mission, while attending the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference this week. "It does mean that science has to stand down for a couple more days."

The science team was hoping to be back online on Monday, but this latest problem happened over the weekend. Apparently, a file that was scheduled for deletion was still connected to a file the rover was using, and the conflict put Curiosity back into safe mode until it could be resolved.

"If not for the latest safing, we would have been back in action today," Grotzinger said on Monday. "The expectation is, it's going to take a couple of sols to resolve this one."

A 'sol', by the way, is what the science team calls a 'day' on Mars. The Martian solar day is a little longer than Earth's solar day — at 24 hours, 39 minutes, and 35.244 seconds — and since the rover generally operates only during daylight hours, the science and driving teams need to adjust their own schedules here on Earth to compensate. So, calling the Martian day by a different name just avoids confusion when discussing Earth day vs Mars day.

These delays in the science team's mission have to be frustrating for them, but what's worse is the timing.

Just before Curiosity's first computer glitch, it had just drilled into a carefully-chosen rock, and delivered the data from its chemical analysis back to Earth. Examining this data, the science team found that the area the rover is in now, on the floor of the Gale Crater, was once an environment that was capable of supporting life as we know it. These glitches and shut-downs have now put a three-week delay in any repeated experiments with the rock dust, but what's worse is that once the team has the rover back online and ready for science, they will only have a few sols left before the solar system itself interferes with their work.

This is due to what's called 'solar conjunction'.

Starting in April, Mars will slip behind the glare of the Sun from our point of view, reaching conjunction — the point where it is exactly on the other side of the Sun from Earth — on April 18th, and coming back out from hiding again later in the month. The science team will still be able to keep in contact with the Curiosity and Opportunity rovers, but the Sun will cause interference with any communications, severely limiting what the science teams can do during that time.

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Undoubtedly it will be a time to relax a bit and continue to analyse the findings of both rovers, but I can imagine that it will be a source of some frustration as well.

Still, it's good to step away from your work sometimes ... right? Even when your work involves driving a 1-ton nuclear-powered robot around on another planet, blasting rocks with a laser (for science, of course!) and taking magnificent panoramic photos of its environment that make you feel as if you're standing right next to it ... right?

For some reason, I don't think that sounded very convincing.

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