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NASA forced its Curiosity rover to use its backup ‘brain’ after it started acting up

NASA has had a recent run of incredible success with its Mars missions. The possibly-now-dead Opportunity rover has already managed to outlast its expected lifespan by well over a decade, and the Curiosity rover recently relearned how to drill rocks to overcome a potentially devastating setback. Now, to ensure its streak of success isn’t halted, NASA has commanded the Curiosity rover to switch “brains” in order to diagnose some peculiar behavior on the part of the robot.

In a new post, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory explains that it instructed Curiosity to switch over to its backup computer so that engineers can get a better handle on a very strange issue. Recently, the rover has been failing to store “science and key engineering data,” and switching to its backup computer might help NASA figure out why.

“Like many NASA spacecraft, Curiosity was designed with two, redundant computers — in this case, referred to as a Side-A and a Side-B computer — so that it can continue operations if one experiences a glitch,” JPL explains in the post. “After reviewing several options, JPL engineers recommended that the rover switch from Side B to Side A, the computer the rover used initially after landing.”

Doing so will allow NASA to see if the issue with the data storage is somehow related to the computer itself or perhaps something else. If all is well after the rover switches brains it’ll help the scientists diagnose the problem, but the Curiosity team intends to use the Side-B computer again as soon as possible. Five years ago, the Side-A computer had to be modified after an issue was found, limiting its memory and making the Side-B computer the preferred “brain.”

“At this point, we’re confident we’ll be getting back to full operations, but it’s too early to say how soon,” said Steven Lee of JPL, Curiosity’s deputy project manager. “We are operating on Side A starting today, but it could take us time to fully understand the root cause of the issue and devise workarounds for the memory on Side B.”

Uh oh, there might be something wrong with NASA’s Curiosity rover now

NASA’s rover situation on Mars is, well, complicated. The aging Curiosity rover was swallowed up by the planet-wide dust storm that covered Mars earlier this summer and hasn’t woken back up since. The rover’s extended mission is currently in limbo while NASA waits to see if it still has some life left in it, so all eyes have been on the newer Curiosity rover as it continues to explore the Martian surface.

Now, in a new update by the Curiosity team, it seems the last working robot is coming down with a case of… something. It seems Curiosity is refusing to send back the vital scientific data that it has been gathering, and NASA isn’t sure what’s wrong.

“Over the past few days, engineers here at JPL have been working to address an issue on Curiosity that is preventing it from sending much of the science and engineering data stored in its memory,” the Curiosity team explains. “The rover remains in its normal mode and is otherwise healthy and responsive.”

The rover isn’t totally silent, however, and is still relaying certain status information, just not the science data it has stored locally. This strange set of circumstances is leaving Curiosity’s engineers scratching their heads.

“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 team writes. “These real-time data are transmitting normally, and include various details about the rover’s status. Engineers are expanding the details the rover transmits in these real-time data to better diagnose the issue.”

Opportunity — that’s the one that’s currently sleeping off its dust storm hangover — has far surpassed its original mission timeline. Originally intended to last just 90 days on Mars, it has managed to push on for well over a decade. Curiosity is much newer, having landed on the planet in mid 2012, and it’s done some fantastic work thus far. Its primary mission stretched for roughly two years, and it has been continuing its work ever since.

Whatever is wrong with Curiosity we’ll be keeping our fingers crossed that it gets resolved in short order.

NASA’s Curiosity rover just snapped a stunning 360-degree panorama of Mars

NASA’s Opportunity rover might be taking an extended nap at the moment (please don’t say it’s dead!) but the Curiosity rover is wide awake and doing a whole bunch of science stuff. The nuclear-powered robot, which didn’t experience any significant downtime in the wake of the dust storm that brought down its older sibling, just got done playing with some new rocks, and took a moment to grab a fantastic 360-degree view of its surroundings.

The image, which is a bit distorted near the bottom due to the quirks of taking a panorama with the rover’s own body in the frame, is a timely reminder of just how harsh the conditions on the Red Planet are.

“The panorama includes umber skies, darkened by a fading global dust storm,” NASA explains in a new blog post. “It also includes a rare view by the Mast Camera of the rover itself, revealing a thin layer of dust on Curiosity’s deck. In the foreground is the rover’s most recent drill target, named “Stoer” after a town in Scotland near where important discoveries about early life on Earth were made in lakebed sediments.”

Those “umber skies” are still pretty dusty, but they’re a whole lot brighter than they were a few weeks back when the planet-wide dust storm was still at full strength. As for the target rock that Curiosity’s handlers sampled, it was a big win for the team which has had some unusually bad luck lately. As NASA notes, the team’s previous two target rocks were too hard to actually drill into, stifling attempts to get quality samples.


The panorama is pretty fantastic, and it’s even better when viewed in the 360-degree layout provided by YouTube. Removing all the distortion, you can actually look around and examine anything you want, including the rover itself. What’s particularly interesting is the significant amount of dust and debris that has built up on the rover’s body. You can even see the hole that has developed in one of the rover’s rugged wheels, which is the result of it climbing over sharp rocks.

NASA finally figured out what this ‘foreign object’ on Mars actually is

Despite what so many people would love to believe, NASA hasn’t discovered any evidence of past or present intelligent life on Mars. So, when the Curiosity rover stumbled upon what appeared to be a very suspicious chunk of something on the Red Planet’s surface, they were not only surprised but also a little bit worried.

The thin fragment was suspicious enough to warrant its own name, with NASA’s Curiosity rover team calling it the “Pettegrove Point Foreign Object Debris,” named for the location where it was discovered. With no idea what it was or where it came from, the rover’s handlers began to worry that it might actually be a chunk of the rover itself, suggesting some unseen damage or other issue with the robot. Thankfully, those concerns seem to have been unfounded.

In a new update from NASA the object has now been identified as a natural chunk of rock rather than a piece of any manmade craft or vehicle. The team analyzed the bizarre object with a tool called the ChemCam RMI. The instrument uses a laser to sniff out the makeup of anything it’s pointed at, and the results for this particular piece of debris revealed that it’s actually just a very thin piece of rock.

NASA describes the inspection thusly:

The planning day began with an interesting result from the previous plan’s ChemCam RMI analysis of a target that was referred to as “Pettegrove Point Foreign Object Debris” (PPFOD), and speculated to be a piece of spacecraft debris. In fact it was found to be a very thin flake of rock, so we can all rest easy tonight – Curiosity has not begun to shed its skin!

How this particularly thin sliver of rock got to where it is — and why it seems to be a different color than the surrounding sand and debris — remains unexplained, but at least the rover isn’t falling apart.

The Curiosity rover finally found a rock too hard to crack, but it tried anyway

NASA’s Curiosity rover has been doing some fantastic work on Mars, and even though it had to basically reinvent how it uses its primary sampling tool it’s managed to get back to work anyway. Unfortunately for the rover’s handlers, one of the first new targets that they picked to drill into has actually managed to defeat the powerful tool.

In a new update on the Curiosity rover’s mission log, scientists reveal that the rock they were trying to steal a sample from is just too dang hard to pierce. The large rock, nicknamed Voyageurs, suffered barely a scratch from Curiosity’s drill bit, and it didn’t reach nearly deep enough to obtain a useful sample.

The scientists explain their hardships thusly:

After our attempt to drill the Voyageurs target did not reach sufficient depth due to the impressive hardness of the rock , the team is beginning to finish up its activities at this location before heading a bit further uphill to find a more suitable (i.e., softer) drill target. All evidence suggests that this rock target is one of the hardest yet observed in Gale crater, a property that may be indicative of this entire section of the Vera Rubin Ridge.

Well that’s a bummer, but despite not being able to gather a sample for testing, the fact that the rock is so hard does reveal some tantalizing information. Rock hardness is determined by a number of different factors, and the fact that this particular rock is so incredibly hard suggests that their are some very interesting natural process at work in this particular region of the Red Planet.

To a geologist, variations in rock hardness could indicate several different physical and chemical properties about a rock. It is important for us to further characterize and understand why this rock unit is so much harder than the underlying rocks within the Murray formation. Could this increased hardness be related to changes in water chemistry as the sedimentary rocks were being deposited? Or, could this increased hardness be due to subsequent cementation as iron-rich water was injected into the previously deposited sedimentary rocks?

Those are all questions that NASA just doesn’t have enough data to answer, at least not yet. Determining what mechanisms contributed to the formation of any of the rocks on the surface of Mars is an ongoing process, but for now Curiosity will head elsewhere in the hopes of finding some softer to sink its drill into.