Curiosity entered “safe mode” during the late evening on March 16. The rover put itself in the precautionary standby status when a command file failed a size-check by the rover’s protective software. NASA engineers quickly diagnosed the software issue, deleted the file that was causing the size error, and Curiosity was back to active status by March 19.
Now that the rover has exited safe mode, Curiosity is expected to begin science observations any day now. The mission’s science observations have been on hold since February 27 after a memory glitch on the A-side computer. Controllers commanded a swap from the A-side computer to the B-side computer. The A-side is now available as a backup for the rover, if needed.
The computer glitches Curiosity has recently experienced may seem worrisome, but NASA anticipates technological glitches and prepares accordingly. Missions have built-in redundancies in order to prevent an error from crippling a mission before completion, such as Curiosity’s two computers. Another great example of technological foresight is the Voyager I and II missions that were launched in 1977. These missions have experienced numerous instrument and computer issues, but remain healthy and continue to communicate with NASA thanks to such redundancies. On the Voyager spacecraft there are three different computer types and two of each. In 2010, Voyager II experienced scientific data format problems. Thanks to multiple computers engineers were able to put Voyager II in “engineering mode” and investigate the problem. The problem turned out to be a flipped bit on one of Voyager II’s computers. Engineers successfully reset the computer and Voyager II resumed processing data correctly. Learn more about Voyager and the data glitch of 2010.
Additionally, Curiosity’s commanders plan to suspend communication from April 4 to May 1 when Mars will be passing nearly directly behind the sun. This suspension of communication is a precaution against interference by the sun that could corrupt a command sent to Curiosity. During this time Curiosity will be able to continue science observations. Read more about this in a status update from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory project is using Curiosity to investigate Mars’ Gale Crater. The project has found the conditions in the crater were once favorable for microbal life. If you want to support similar endeavors for scientific discovery, tell Congress to double NASA’s funding.