“Mystery Glitch” –NASA: Curiosity Rover Halts Mars’ Science Discovery


Nasa’s Curiosity rover has ground to a halt on Mars after a glitch forced the termination all of its science experiments, following one of the biggest Martian dust storms on record, which at its peak covered 14 million square miles (36 million sq km), knocking out Nasa’s solar-powered Opportunity rover for three months. Curiosity weathered the storm as it runs on a nuclear-powered battery and so does not rely on the sun’s rays to fuel its operations.

The Curiosity Mission team says the inter-planetary science lab can no longer beam data stored in Curiosity’s memory back to Earth, effectively rendering it useless until the issue is resolved.

The rover is still able to transmit some data, including about its well-being. It can uplink information to a Mars orbiter as it passes overhead, or beam it directly to the Deep Space Network, a series of antennas back on Earth. Vasavada said engineers have instructed Curiosity to send more data about its status, which doesn’t require the rover to dip into previously stored information.

Curiosity arrived on Mars six years ago to explore the composition of the rocky terrain and perhaps find organic compounds, reports Marina Koren in The Atlantic. The rover travels at the very unhurried pace of less than a mile an hour and stops every now and then to burrow its drilling equipment into the ground. This week, Curiosity tried to drill in a new location, but couldn’t penetrate the rock more than a few millimeters. “Who’d have thought that ridge rocks could be so hard?” a blog post from the rover’s science team reported. Curiosity drove off, bound for a new drilling target. Then the mysterious glitch emerged.

Researchers said they are unsure what triggered the computer glitch and that it could be ‘some time’ before engineers manage to diagnose and fix the problem. In the interim, team members are preparing to fire up the backup computer, in case they need the separate system to diagnose the mysterious issue plaguing the main computer.

Researchers said barring the glitch, Curiosity is ‘otherwise healthy and responsive’, and can still stream real-time data about its status back to mission control, allowing NASA to diagnose and patch the problems with the main computer. The backup system, which is identical to the primary computer, served as Curiosity’s primary system for the rover’s first 200 sols on the Red Planet before it started to experience issues of its own.

“Engineers are expanding the details the rover transmits in these real-time data to better diagnose the issue,’ Ashwin Vasavada, of Nasa’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, wrote in an update Wednesday. “Because the amount of data coming down is limited, it might take some time for the engineering team to diagnose the problem.”

Vasavada wrote: ‘While the engineers work to understand the problem, Curiosity’s science team is using the time to pore over data gathered on Vera Rubin Ridge and come up with the best location for another drilling attempt. We’re looking at any clues that tell us the rocks are weaker and better for drilling. As the JPL-based project scientist, I really enjoy watching our scientists from all over the world take on these challenges. And, I also get to witness the brainpower that JPL brings to bear when the rover has a technical issue. We’re rooting for the engineering team 100%!’

The Daily Galaxy via JPL and The Atlantic

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