The Mars rover Curiosity was powered down Wednesday in preparation for a solar-storm pounding.
It’s about time there was some real drama in the story of the little rover that could. If this were a sci-fi movie, we’d all be snoring by now.
It’s been celebrations galore with one historic first after another since Curiosity landed in August — which was itself a historic first that had NASA positively verklempt. Now there’s been an honest-to-goodness glitch and a solar tempest to boot.
Curiosity’s lively Twitter feed said on March 1: “Don’t flip out: I just flipped over to my B-side computer while the team looks into an A-side memory issue.” As CNET reported late last month, the rover had powered the backup computer — essentially going into safe mode — after software glitches ‘interrupted the flow of science data.”
Curiosity project manager Richard Cook told CBS News that the glitch was a “humbling experience,” a reminder of the true difficulty of the mission and the chances that things can go haywire.
The probable cause of the difficulties? Space radiation.
On the heels of that glitch, a huge solar flare erupted Tuesday, sending yet more radiation toward Mars — and its visitor from Earth. Tuesday’s flare wasn’t expected to have any negative effect for those of us back home, although such flares can play havoc with some satellite networks, GPS services, airline flights and utility grids, as the Associated Press reported.
But Mars is another story, and with the recent computer problems, scientists decided to play it safe and power the rover down.
The Curiosity Twitter feed said:
Earth’s magnetic field, as well as its thick atmosphere, provides protection from space weather. The cavity around our planet called the magnetosphere protects us from “constant bombardment” by charged particles from the sun, as NASA explains. Much of Mars’ atmosphere, on the other hand, is exposed directly to these fast-moving particles from the sun and the effects of solar flares.
NASA spacecraft circling Mars also could be harmed by solar storms. Worst case? The spacecraft may have to enter safe mode, halting science activities, as the AP reported.
Roger Gibbs, deputy manager for the Mars exploration program at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in La Cañada Flintridge, Calif., said Wednesday that for now all the Curiosity team could do was wait.
“We’ll be watching and seeing what happens,” he said.
— Amy Hubbard