What, again? Curiosity rover’s new glitch keeps it from Mt. Sharp

March 19, 2013 | 8:50 a.m.
rocks on mars What, again? Curiosity rovers new glitch keeps it from Mt. Sharp

The rock at left, seen by Opportunity rover on Mars, is formed from sulfate-rich sandstone, cemented in the presence of water, scientists say, but this environment likely was not habitable -- due to extreme salinity and acidity of the water. But the rock at right, seen by Curiosity, indicates an ancient habitable environment: neutral pH, chemical gradients that would have created energy for microbes, and a distinctly low salinity, which would have helped metabolism if microorganisms had ever been present. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell/MSSS)

analog to yellowknife bay on mars What, again? Curiosity rovers new glitch keeps it from Mt. Sharp

NASA provided this Martian analog to the Yellowknife Bay area, where Curiosity has been exploring. At left, a pit exposing clay-bearing lake sediments, deposited in a basaltic basin in southern Australia. At right is a core sample from the lakebed, with layered, clay-rich sediments. The layers show the changing lake chemistry and environmental conditions over time. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/Ames)

rock scratch and rock drill What, again? Curiosity rovers new glitch keeps it from Mt. Sharp

Opportunity rover could only abrade the rock, left. Curiosity used its drill to bore the hole at right. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell/MSSS)

scoop of martian rock What, again? Curiosity rovers new glitch keeps it from Mt. Sharp

The result of the drilling was this scoop of powdered rock, which then provided proof that ancient Mars contained the ingredients for life. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS)

The Mars rover Curiosity has gotten glitchy again, but NASA is downplaying the significance of the latest bug.

In just a few days, the space agency says, Curiosity will be back in business. The culprit in the latest computer problem was a “software issue” that landed the rover in safe mode again. NASA has stressed that this was Curiosity’s idea. When a “command file failed a size-check by the rover’s protective software,” NASA says, the rover automatically went into “precautionary standby” mode.

“This is a very straightforward matter,” Richard Cook, project manager for the rover, said in a news release. It just means deleting a file.

But it’s slowing things down. Curiosity has accomplished a primary goal of the mission — finding that ancient Mars was indeed habitable — without accomplishing another thing we’ve all been waiting for: arriving at Mt. Sharp.

Scientists are hoping that the Mt. Sharp area will prove to be the Grand Canyon of Mars. As the Los Angeles Times’ Scott Gold wrote before Curiosity landed on the Red Planet: “Here could be a record of Mars’ environmental history — of two planetary-scale geologic phenomena, the first when water appears to have covered Mars with sediment, the second when Mars dried up and the sediment was stripped away.”

Deputy project scientist Ashwin Vasavada told the L.A. Times: “With one habitable environment in the bag, we now can see if such environments persisted over time, and maybe even see Mars turn from an ancient, wet planet into the dry, barren planet it is today.”

But glitches are getting in Curiosity’s way. The first was a computer memory problem on Feb. 27 that forced a switch  from Curiosity’s A-side computer to its B-side. For two days, the operator-commanded change had Curiosity in safe mode, NASA says. Now comes this new “software issue.” Next, there will be a four-week moratorium on commands to the rover beginning April 4 as Mars passes nearly directly behind the sun from Earth’s perspective.

The moratorium is because of possible interference by the sun, which could corrupt commands sent to the rover.

It’s enough to try the patience of space fans. The Curiosity team probably isn’t loving the delays, either.

After the discovery that conditions on Mars were once favorable to microbial life, NASA scientists said excitement about heading to Mt. Sharp had only increased. At a recent news conference in Washington, D.C., mission lead scientist John Grotzinger said: “We’re still going to go to Mt. Sharp.” In the meantime, he said he hoped the rover’s findings could spark “what I hope will be a burgeoning field of comparative planetary habitability.”

— Amy Hubbard | @AmyTheHub

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5 Responses to What, again? Curiosity rover’s new glitch keeps it from Mt. Sharp

  1. Marc Jansen says:

    Should allow kids to program their equipment, it would be running around like a formula 1 race car. In- stead, it sits like the liberal government agencies multi cultural mess NASA has been turned into!

  2. Teddy says:

    We are using a semi-autonomous robot to explore another planet, and we are getting remarkable data from that robot on a regular basis. I think that the tone of impatience and frustration in this article is completely unfounded. I am continually amazed by what NASA/JPL and the Curiosity team have accomplished on Mars. I appreciate every piece of data that comes back from Mars, and I think that the patience of "space fans" is in no way being tried here. We have plenty of data to pour over and think about, and I note that almost all of the technical "glitches" that have occurred have been anticipated by the project designers. No one familiar with Mars exploration should expect anything to happen instantly.

    • Nancy Drew says:

      Good on you, Teddy. Things are actually going really well. These are the kind of expected problems that separate "space fans" from "science fans".

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