Mars Curiosity rover enters, leaves safe mode
Just two days before the start of the Fourth of July holiday, the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) Curiosity went into an unexpected safe mode, a state it had not entered since 2013. According to NASA, the nuclear-powered rover has since resumed communications with Earth and engineers are working to restore the rover to its full working capacity.
Last week, while most Americans were planning their celebrations for the Independence Day holiday, the team operating Curiosity from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, had already planned their latest science exploration sessions for the robotic geologist.
Curiosity has been exploring the 96-mile (154-kilometer) wide Gale Crater since landing at the site in August of 2012. The rover is currently examining a slope at the base of Mount Sharp (officially Aeolis Mons), which at 3.4 miles (5.5 kilometers) in height, dominates the landscape.
Ryan Anderson of the United States Geological Survey (USGS) Astrogeology Science Center in Flagstaff, Arizona, said in a July 1 report that Sols 1389 through 1391 (a day on the Red Planet is called a Sol and is slightly longer than an Earth day) were intended to go as follows:
“Today [July 1] we put together a three-Sol plan to take us through the holiday weekend. On Sol 1389 we do contact science with APXS and MAHLI on the target “Outjo”. SAM also will begin an analysis of some of the ‘Mojave2’ sample that was collected a while ago.
“Sol 1390 starts off with a long science block. This was originally split into two blocks, but during planning we decided it would save some time to combine them. Mastcam starts the block off with a multispectral observation of the brushed target “Outjo”. Then ChemCam has a long distance RMI observation of Mt. Sharp, plus analyses of the targets “Outjo” and “Luanda”. After ChemCam, Mastcam turns back on, and has mosaics of “Bukalo” and “Bailundo” (blocky deposits), “Keetmanshoop” (an outcrop of Murray formation), and “Quimavongo” (a small crater). SAM will also continue its sample analysis.
“On Sol 1391 we will drive for about 60 meters and then collect post-drive imaging. And then in the early morning on Sol 1392, Navcam and Mastcam have a series of atmospheric observations.”
However, on July 2 (Sol 1389), Curiosity entered a safe mode. This was apparently caused by an issue with the rover’s software. The anomaly is still being studied for its cause and eventual solution.
“Preliminary information indicates an unexpected mismatch between camera software and data-processing software in the main computer,” the JPL website reported. “The near-term steps toward resuming full activities begin with requesting more diagnostic information from Curiosity.”
Ken Herkenhoff, also of the USGS Astrogeology Science Center, said in a July 6 rover update the 3-sol plan was not executed, but the rover and all subsystems are healthy.
“Science planning has been suspended while critical engineering data are returned to Earth and studied by software experts at JPL,” Herkenhoff said.
Herkenhoff noted, however, that the rover activities planned for Sols 1387 and 1388 were completed successfully.
“Lots of good data were returned including a stunning Right Mastcam panorama of the “Murray Buttes” toward the southwest,” Herkenhoff said, “One of the images in this panorama shows a boulder that appears to be precariously balanced.”
Herkenhoff said that while the rover team doesn’t plan to drive right up next to the boulder, they’ll probably get closer looks as Curiosity’s proceeds toward Mount Sharp.
Now entering its fourth years on Mars, Curiosity has determined that the Gale region had fresh-water surface lakes and rivers over three billion years ago, which could have supported at least microbial life forms. In order to continue its exploration of Mars, NASA recently approved an additional two-year extension for Curiosity operations beginning Oct. 1, 2016.
Larry Klaes is an author and freelance journalist specializing in news and educational work on the sciences. Klae's past endeavors include editor of SETIQuest magazine and President of the Boston chapter of the National Space Society (NSS). Klaes joined SpaceFlight Insider in 2016.