March 8th, 2013 by James Ayre
A large solar flare erupted from the Sun on March 5th, accompanied by a large CME. As a result NASA decided to temporarily power down their Mars rover Curiosity, in order to help protect it from the blast. Curiosity has already been dealing with a computer glitch and subsequent switch to a backup over the past week, so the solar flare and CME have further implicated that.
The mission controllers for Curiosity made the decision to shut down shortly after the mid-strength solar flare occurred. The rover is designed to withstand solar flares and CMEs of strength comparable to that of thai recent eruption, the decision to power down was made simply as an extra precaution because of the other computer problems being dealt with at the moment. This is the second shut down that the Mars rover Curiosity has experienced in recent days, as it was switched into ‘safe mode’ last Saturday March 2nd, when the computer glitch came to light.
“Storm’s a-comin’! There’s a solar storm heading for Mars. I’m going back to sleep to weather it out,” NASA officials stated on Curiosity’s official Twitter feed, on the 6th.
The decision to power down is expected to delay the restart of Curiosity’s science mission until at least this a few days from now.
Curiosity has been pretty much flawless until these recent problems, even exceeding expectations. The nearly pinpoint landing in Gale Crater last August, the travel to sites of specific interest, and the testing out of all of its equipment, everything has been good.
This recent computer glitch came to light when the rover “failed to send recorded data home to Earth and didn’t shift into its daily sleep mode as planned. The mission team determined that a glitch had affected the flash memory on Curiosity’s main, or A-side, computer system. So engineers swapped the rover over to its backup (B-side) computer, which spurred Curiosity to go into safe mode on Thursday (February 28).”
“Since then, the robot’s handlers have been working to configure the B-side computer for surface operations and fix the problem with the A-side, which they think may have been caused by a fast-moving charged particle known as a cosmic ray.”
Some progress has been made, Curiosity was taken out of safe mode on last Saturday and has begun using its high-gain antenna again. Mission controllers have stated that they think the glitch will be ‘fixed’ within the next couple of days.
But now with the large solar flare that may be pushed back somewhat.
“NASA officials do not expect Tuesday’s solar flare to seriously affect any of the agency’s other robotic Mars explorers, such as the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter or Opportunity rover,” according to a statement released by NASA.
“Tuesday’s flare was accompanied by a coronal mass ejection (CME), which blasted a huge cloud of solar plasma toward the Red Planet. CMEs that slam into Earth inject large amounts of energy into our planet’s magnetic field, spawning potentially devastating geomagnetic storms that can disrupt GPS signals, radio communications and power grids for days.”
There has been a lot of reporting in recent years on the potential damage to the world’s infrastructure that may occur as result of large solar flare and CME hitting the Earth. Such as those that seem to hit the Earth every hundred or so years. If a large enough amount of the electrical grid was affected it could take as long as a couple of years to get it back up. In the meantime refrigerated and frozen food, antibiotics and vaccines (both require refrigeration), water treatment facilities, sewage facilities, and many other important systems would all be nonfunctional/unavailable. Unless of course you are off the grid, generating your own power.
Image Credits: ASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS; NASA/SDO
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