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Curiosity Mars rover experiencing memory problem

A picture from Curiosity's Mast Camera on Sol 2171 shows a drill hole only 0.16 inches (4 millimeters) deep, which is much less than was anticipated. Photo Credit: NASA

A picture from Curiosity’s Mast Camera on Sol 2171 shows a drill hole only 0.16 inches (4 millimeters) deep, which is much less than was anticipated. Photo Credit: NASA

While one NASA team attempts to reconnect with the 14-year-old Opportunity Mars rover following a planet-wide dust storm, engineers for another rover located on the opposite side of the planet are troubleshooting a glitch.

NASA’s nuclear-powered Curiosity rover, which landed in the 96-mile (154-kilometer) wide Gale Crater on the Red Planet in 2012, has an issue that is preventing it from transmitting science and engineering data stored in its memory. As such, science operations have been temporarily halted.

“The issue first appeared Saturday night while Curiosity was running through the weekend plan,” wrote Curiosity project scientist Ashwin Vasavada in a mission update. “Besides transmitting data recorded in its memory, the rover can transmit ‘real-time’ data when it links to a relay orbiter or Deep Space Network antenna.”

The weekend plan Vasavada referred to included a drill attempt that was not successful and only reached 0.16 inches (about 4 millimeters) into a rock dubbed “Inverness” at an area called Vera Rubin Ridge.

Vasavada said real-time data transmission is working “normally,” and includes details of the status of the rover, which remains in normal mode and is healthy and responsive.

“Engineers are expanding the details the rover transmits in these real-time data to better diagnose the issue,” Vasavada wrote. “Because the amount of data coming down is limited, it might take some time for the engineering team to diagnose the problem.”

According to the update, Curiosity engineers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, on Sept. 17-18 worked to decide which real-time details would be the most useful to have transmitted until the problem is solved. In the meantime, all science instruments that were still on were commanded off as data is apparently not being stored.

Just in case, engineers are preparing to use Curiosity’s backup computer should it be necessary to use it to diagnose the primary computer.

Since Curiosity is not currently collecting data, mission scientists are taking time to go over the data collected from Vera Rubin Ridge so far and to come up with the location for the next drilling attempt. Inverness turned out to be much harder than anticipated and the team is now looking for a weaker rock to drill into once science operations resume.

The car-sized Curiosity rover landed on Mars on Aug. 6, 2012, and has spent the last six years investigating the climate and geology of Gale Crater. As of September 2018, the vehicle has driven more than 12 miles (19 kilometers). It is currently exploring the slopes of Mount Sharp, the peak at the center of Gale Crater.

A recent 360-degree view of Curiosity on Vera Rubin Ridge. Video courtesy of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory



Derek Richardson has a degree in mass media, with an emphasis in contemporary journalism, from Washburn University in Topeka, Kansas. While at Washburn, he was the managing editor of the student run newspaper, the Washburn Review. He also has a website about human spaceflight called Orbital Velocity. You can find him on twitter @TheSpaceWriter.

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