March 3rd, 2013 by James Ayre
NASA’s Mars rover Curiosity has been forced to a backup computer as a result of a computer glitch. engineers made the switch to the secondary computer while they work on the problem.
As of right now, Curiosity’s science missions are being placed on hold, in “safe mode”, until the backup computer is updated so that it can take over primary operations.
“We’re still early on in the process,” said Richard Cook, Curiosity project manager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. “We have probably several days, maybe a week of activities to get everything back and reconfigured.”
The computer glitch became apparent on Wednesday February the 27th, after Curiosity didn’t transmit its new data back to the Earth, and didn’t power down into its “daily sleep mode” as was expected. Engineers then investigated the issue and decided it was best from the “A-side” computer then in use, to the “B-side” backup. Which occurred Thursday February 28th, at 5:30 p.m. EST (22:30 GMT).
“Don’t flip out: I just flipped over to my B-side computer while the team looks into an A-side memory issue,” NASA officials tweeted on Curiosity’s Twitter page.
“The computer problem is related to a glitch in flash memory on the A-side computer caused by corrupted memory files, Cook said. Scientists are still looking into the root cause the corrupted memory, but it’s possible the memory files were damaged by high-energy space particles called cosmic rays, which are always a danger beyond the protective atmosphere of Earth.”
“The hardware that we fly is radiation tolerant,” Cook said in an interview with SPACE.com, “but there’s a limit to how hardened it can be. You can still get high-energy particles that can cause the memory to be corrupted. It certainly is a possibility and that’s what we’re looking into.”
After Curiosity is completely functional again it will be essentially the same, as the B-side computer is exactly the same as the A-side, just a redundant backup. It’s standard protocol in spacecraft for there to be redundant copies of the primary computer systems. Then when there is an issue, such as this, it isn’t really much of a problem.
“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 JPL engineer Magdy Bareh, leader of the mission’s anomaly resolution team.
The eventual goal is the A-side computer can be brought back to health an used as a backup.
“We also want to look to see if we can make changes to software to immunize against this kind of problem in the future,” Cook said.
NASA’s Mars rover Curiosity is the centerpiece of the $2.5 billion Mars Science Laboratory mission that was launched into space in November 2011, and touched down on the Martian surface in August 2012. Currently, Curiosity is exploring the planet, specifically Gale Crater, looking for evidence that it may have been hospitable to microbial life at some point. The mission was originally planned to last for a minimum of two years, but has now been extended to last indefinitely.
In recent weeks, Curiosity has begun using its onboard drill, taking samples, and beginning analysis of the rock sample. This is the first time that samples have been taken from the inside of a rock on Mars.
“The short hiatus form science work caused by the computer issue shouldn’t cause any long-term complications to the rover’s mission,” Cook said.
Image Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS
Keep up to date with all the most interesting green news on the planet by subscribing to our (free) Planetsave newsletter.