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Curiosity temporarily disabled by computer glitch

Mars rover Curiosity had a hiccup with its main computer system on February 27. The rover remains in good health following a switch to a backup system, although a permanent solution to the problem has not yet been found.

Curiosity’s ‘A-side’ computer had operated since the laboratory landed on Mars in August. The memory glitch was discovered on February 27, when telemetry checks indicated that the rover had not entered sleep mode. After discovering this anomaly, rover operators made the decision to switch to the redundant ‘B-side’ computer. The swap took place at about 10:30 UT on February 28 and put the rover into safe mode so diagnostics could be run on the affected computer.

Engineering tests Earthside suggested that the cause of the glitch was due to corrupted flash memory in a location that handled the addressing of other files in memory.  In an official press release regarding the issue, JPL engineer Magdy Bareh, leader of Curiosity’s anomaly resolution team said,  “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.”

While the problem was not considered serious, science operations on the rover have been adversely affected for the time being. Science operations ceased following the computer switch, but are expected to resume as operators ramp up the B-side computer to normal capacity. No timeline for a fix on the A-side computer was given, but the JPL handling of a similar problem on Spirit rover back in 2004 suggest that a permanent solution will probably be found and implemented in the next couple of weeks.

The disruption to Curiosity’s science schedule came only a week after the rover began analyzing rock powder ground from a target named “John Klein”, part of an exposure of rock at Yellowknife Bay. The powders being analyzed by Curiosity’s Chemistry and Mineralogy (CheMin) and Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) instruments were drilled from “John Klein” on February 8.

Rock from “John Klein” comes from part of a larger rock outcrop named Yellowknife Bay. The rocks at Yellowknife Bay are likely the oldest accessible to Curiosity at Gale Crater, and contain evidence that water was present while the sediments were being deposited. Veins of hydrous minerals are visible throughout the rock, as well as concretions that likely formed from groundwater flowing through the rocks after deposition. Once science operations resume in earnest, Curiosity will likely continue exploring the rocks at Yellowknife Bay before turning its eyes towards the massive stack of sediments that make up Mt. Sharp.

Image: Curiousity takes a composite photo of itself using its robotic arm Credit: NASA/JPL


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About The Author
Justin Cowart
Justin Cowart is a geologist interested in Earth and Solar System history. As a geologist, he spends hist time looking at the ground, but in his free time he looks to the skies as an amateur astronomer.

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