National Geographic News
Picture of Mars Rover

A self-portrait generated by the Mars rover Curiosity last October.

Image courtesy MSSS/Caltech/NASA

Marc Kaufman

for National Geographic News

Published March 1, 2013

The Mars rover Curiosity experienced its first significant malfunction on Wednesday, when one of its two onboard computers became corrupted and failed to turn off and enter "sleep mode" as planned.

The Curiosity team at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory sent up commands to switch all operations from the corrupted A computer to the twin B computer early Thursday morning, according to a Thursday NASA statement.

Most spacecraft have a backup computer to step in if the primary computer fails. (Related: Meet One of Curiosity's Earthbound Twins.)

Richard Cook, project manager for the Curiosity project, said the problem was the most serious experienced by the rover so far in its nearly seven months on the red planet.

Cook said the team was most concerned Wednesday night, before they got a handle on the nature of the problem. But once they began to understand better, it became clear that switching to the other computer was necessary and unlikely to have long-term consequences.

He said he hoped Curiosity would resume science work in about a week. (Related: Manned Mars Mission Announced by Dennis Tito Group.)

On other space missions, Cook said, similar problems were caused by high-energy solar and cosmic ray strikes. He said that's probably what happened this time.

Curiosity has protections against such high-energy disruptions, but the problem was compounded by what appears to have been the location of the strike—in the directory, or "table of contents," of the computer's memory. Cook said the location of the strike appears to have caused the computer to get stuck in an endless loop.

While previous rovers experienced many so-called "anomalies" during the early part of their treks, the much larger and more complex Curiosity has been almost trouble-free since its dramatic, pinpoint landing last August. (Related: Psychological Challenges of Manned Mars Mission.)

That changed Wednesday when the spacecraft stopped sending recorded data back to Earth, though it did continue sending "current status" information.

The problem was sent to the Curiosity "anomaly team," which decided the computer swap was needed. The swap occurred around Thursday around 2:30 a.m. Pacific Time.

"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, leader of the mission's anomaly resolution team and a JPL engineer.

After switching to the B computer—which was used during part of Curiosity's flight to Mars but has never been used on the surface—the rover went into "safe mode" and stopped almost all activities.

The vehicle is currently holding powder from the first rock ever drilled on Mars, and analysis of that precious content will now have to wait.

Even if the rover is fully operational again in a week, the amount of science it can perform is limited. That's because the sun comes between Mars and the Earth in early April, partially blocking the path for radio commands for an entire month.

The Curiosity team had planned to send back science data from Mars during that period—called "solar conjunction"—but had decided not to send up any commands.  The team was concerned that the commands could be disrupted by the sun and consequently harm the rover computer.

20 comments
Dave Marksmen
Dave Marksmen

He looks just like Windows,  an ancient technology being re-scooped together random as f*** to make a leap to the future..

HELLO ANY OF YOU WANTED TO ACTUALLY PUT THE WIRES INSIDE AND USE NANO TECHNOLOGY!?!?!!

Kojo Otoo
Kojo Otoo

Do you know how amazing and spectacularly a rover far away from the Earth can be controlled. This is a critical problem and has to be dealt with. I think we have to give them time to be able to fix the problem. I then suggest that the rover should be given a little analysis before sent back on it's mission to discover the surface of Mars and give us an information of possible life over there

Rhodomel Meads
Rhodomel Meads

that's the problem when bureaucracy is introduced and overly cautious protocols are followed. the NASA staff seem to be taking their own sweet time to get paid more by slowing down the work. Imagine, taking more than a month just to drill a sample, and another month to load the sample for analysis. this is very very slow pace of work, and the very slow pace of scientific research and exploration has incurred greatest probability of exposure to cosmic dangers. there should be a balance in the pace versus probability of exposure, meaning, the sooner you can get each job done, the more scientific returns you can get per unit time, and the slower the exposure to risks. as it is, this has been the slowest scientific exploration i have witnessed in my life to date.

Jim Schomberg
Jim Schomberg

"On other space missions, Cook said, similar problem were caused by high-energy solar and cosmic ray strikes." In other news, National Geographic doesn't have grammar check.

John C.
John C.

It probably opened up a spoof viagra email.

David K.
David K.

@Babu Ranganathan .....Hey Babu.......this article is about the mars rover.  You don't advertise your beliefs on every NG comments section.........do you?  If so, I'd wish you'd stop. 

Mark Burks
Mark Burks

@Rhodomel MeadsInteresting.  Impatience leads to failure of observation, want of understanding, error of judgement, meanness of expression, incorrect action, and finally null result.   ...so sorry Rhodomel

John Sawyer
John Sawyer

@Rhodomel MeadsNearly all scientists are eager to get information as soon as possible in their chosen fields, and we have no reason to suspect those working on the Curiosity rover mission are any different.You're making a false equivalency between the smaller size and complexity of the prior rovers, and the larger, more complex Curiosity, and instead of coming to a more logical conclusion that this might mean they have reasons for a slower, more careful approach, you instead insist that they must be trying to pad their salaries.I don't know exactly how NASA is run, but I think it's highly unlikely the scientists on this mission could hide such a conspiracy from management.Unless you think NASA management is on it too.

Alex Delderfield
Alex Delderfield

@Rhodomel Meads  

"the NASA staff seem to be taking their own sweet time to get paid more by slowing down the work."

The stupidity in these comment sections to such articles never fail to astound me. 

Kenneth Knowles
Kenneth Knowles

@Rhodomel Meads 

Get a clue!

Can you imagine trying to remotely control a rover that is 350 million miles away and costs 2.5 billion dollars?  Not to mention Mars has severe weather conditions and non-intuitive gravitational acceleration. I would be driving carefully too!  

Rhodomel Meads
Rhodomel Meads

@Mark Burks @Rhodomel Meads Shouldn't be sorry for me at all but so sorry for them. With productivity like this and the budget overbloated, the public would be more than willing to pull the plug. they have to get their acts together. We have seen way more productive missions than this one, and way smaller budget too.  So who will be sorry when the public is getting impatient?

Rhodomel Meads
Rhodomel Meads

@Alex Delderfield @Rhodomel Meads Practical but not stupid. I have basis of comparison if you read my other posts. This is becoming overbloated budget and fleecing of the Americans. No bang for the big bucks.

Rhodomel Meads
Rhodomel Meads

@Kenneth Knowles @Rhodomel Meads I do have several clues, and these are Opportunity and Spirit. I guess the budget was not bloated then, and they get more, way much more done. The new rover is bigger budget, bigger machine, bigger everything else, but unfortunately way lot slower.

Kenneth Knowles
Kenneth Knowles

@Rhodomel Meads 

FYI - the time it takes to transmit or  receive a communications data packet to/from the  Mars orbiters is 15 minutes.

And the Mars orbiters can only communicate with the rover for 8 minutes per day!  Very slow process dude.

Rhodomel Meads
Rhodomel Meads

@Anton Kovalenko @Rhodomel Meads How come the operators of Spirit and Opportunity, the rover predecessors achieved much more in even shorter time? Bigger machines should be more efficient and not slower. I was not born yesterday you know, maybe you.

Rhodomel Meads
Rhodomel Meads

@John Sawyer @Rhodomel Meads It just goes to show that the hardware/software team of Curiosity did not produce quality product. It was slow, prone to big risk, and did not learn anything from Spirit and Opportunity in terms of improving the long distance remote control operation, and even autonomous operations.

John Sawyer
John Sawyer

@Rhodomel Meads You're making pseudo-logical extrapolations rather than looking into the exact particulars that are unique to the Curiosity mission.

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