Curiosity's onboard computer catches a cold, needs to reboot to a backup system

Andrew Bodrov/NASA

For the last six months, the Curiosity rover's mission to explore Mars has been going swimmingly. Or at least it was until this past Wednesday when Curiosity’s controllers noticed a major computer failure.

Scientists believe that one of Curiosity’s two onboard computers have fallen victim to an apparent memory corruption issue, and as a result, the rover stopped transmitting recorded data back to Earth. To fix the issue, NASA has decided to place the rover into a locked-down "safe mode" until the rover operations team has completely switched important functions from the "A" computer over to the rover's backup "B" computer.

Errant space radiation may be to blame for corrupting some of the flash memory used to record data that Curiosity collects. During a regularly scheduled communication operation on Wednesday, NASA scientists noticed that Curiosity sent back information pertaining to its current status, but not any recorded data.

NASA scientists ran into a similar predicament with its Spirit rover in January 2004. That problem involved another memory fault that prevented the rover from going into sleep mode. NASA fixed the problem by completely removing the flash memory element from the rover’s reboot cycle while it deleted unnecessary flight control programs files to return the memory to fully working order.

After Curiosity successfully switches over to its secondary computer system, the control team will slowly begin to restore routine operations.

"While we are resuming operations on the B-side, we are also working to determine the best way to restore the A-side as a viable backup," added JPL engineer Magdy Bareh, leader of the mission's anomaly resolution team, in a press release.

For now, the worst part of this news is that the error will hold up any scientific missions, including the analysis of a drilled-out rock sample by at least a few days.

[Jet Propulsion Laboratory via The Daily Mail]

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