Mars rover Curiosity to sleep through solar storm

March 07, 2013 | 6:45 a.m.
A solar flare is visible in the lower left corner of this NASA image from Nov 13.  A recent solar flare poses a threat to the Mars Curiosity rover. (NASA/SDO/GSFC)

A solar flare is visible in the lower left corner of this NASA image from Nov 13. A recent solar flare poses a threat to the Mars rover. (NASA/SDO/GSFC)

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.

PHOTOS: Awesome images from space

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

More in: Science, science


7 Responses to Mars rover Curiosity to sleep through solar storm

  1. nick janus says:

    verklempt?? meinst du verklemmt

  2. Jim Baughman says:

    I would describe the magnetosphere around earth as a "blanket" or "shield" more than a "cavity". A cavity suggests a vacuum, and vacuums aren't especially handy as protection from radiation.

  3. Eve Hargett says:

    In the words of my grandbaby:: "WOW." iT SEEMS THAT PEOPLE DO NOT SEE THE MIRACLE OF OUR EXISTENCE . Our solar system. and the fact that we do not float away into space attests to the fact that G-D is real people.

    • Natfan9 says:

      It’s called physics, not religion. I’ll leave it at that, for you to consider.

    • Rene says:

      I too am a “God made all this & gave us the free will to figure it out.” Hold the phone, I believe in evolution, too! But because God wants it. I can see Him going “Well that lizard has wandered off too far in the last decade…I better tweek a few things. That’ll give humans something to do, what with the reclassifying & giving it a new scientific name & what not. They’ll be busy for a few years with that one.”

  4. Runway1R says:

    Love the article, just felt the need to object to calling MSL Curiosity “the little rover that could” when it has barely faced any of the same challenges MER-A Spirit, the rightful owner of the title, faced.

  5. Ian says:

    Science is the observation of nature. Religion is a person's and nature's relationship to God. The two are quite different and not mutually exclusive. Religious scientists see nature through their understanding of God. That would include the so called atheistic evolutionists. Their understanding of nature is viewed through the assumption that there is no God. Both groups have starting assumptions. Most science does not require a teleological understanding of nature and both groups can happly and accurately describe what they see and find, such as the feeding habits of birds or the characteristics of elements or how to avoid solar storms on Mars. There is very little religious or evolutionary about a rover on Mars. Its just an engineering and socioeconomic feat made through careful application of observations of nature ie the practical application of science.

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