After Glitch, Curiosity Switches to 'Safe Mode'

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Due to a problem with Mars rover Curiosity’s active computer, mission managers decided to switch to a backup computer as a ‘safe mode’ precaution.

According to mission scientists, the intentional swap was carried out due to a memory issue. “We switched computers to get to a standard state from which to begin restoring routine operations,” said Richard Cook of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, project manager for the Mars Science Laboratory Project, in a NASA statement.

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The problem was identified on Wednesday when Curiosity transmitted routine status information, but did not send any recorded data as expected. The status information revealed that the robot hadn’t switched itself to its usual “sleep” mode as scheduled, prompting NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) scientists — who constructed and manage the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) mission — to carry out some interplanetary diagnostics. They revealed that the problem was down to corrupted flash memory at an “A-side” computer location used for addressing memory files.

All spacecraft have redundant systems that are used for back-up purposes should the active computer run into a glitch or fail. Curiosity has an A-side computer that has, until now, been active since before the mission landed on the Red Planet on Aug. 5, 2012. In light of this memory problem, managers transferred operations to the rover’s “B-side” dormant computer. The last time Curiosity’s B-side was turned on was during its interplanetary cruise after the mission was launched in Nov. 2011.

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“While we are resuming operations on the B-side, we are also working to determine the best way to restore the A-side as a viable backup,” said Magdy Bareh, JPL engineer and leader of the mission’s anomaly resolution team.

Needless to say, science operations have been postponed and will likely take several days to recommence.

Curiosity has been making great progress in recent weeks, even using its robotic arm-mounted drill to burrow into a rock sample and extracting the pristine rock dust for analysis.

Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

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