Blog Archives

NASA’s one last hope for reviving the Opportunity rover may rest with Mars itself

With NASA’s Hubble and Chandra spacecraft both choosing the same week to malfunction, it’s obviously been a trying time for space agency engineers who are working tirelessly to keep space hardware up and running. In fact, last week was so rough on NASA that it was easy to forget the fact that the Opportunity rover is still sitting lifeless on the Red Planet.

NASA has been keeping a close eye on Opportunity — well, as close of an eye as you can when the rover refuses to actually communicate — but in a new update the space agency offers a tiny glimmer of hope. With the dust storm that doomed Opportunity now long gone, the last hope for the rover may rest in a different Mars weather phenomenon.

For the past several weeks, NASA has been sending plenty of signals to rover in the hopes that the aging hardware will finally snap out of its funk. The rover entered a low-power default state when a massive dust storm swallowed Mars and cut off light from Opportunity’s solar panels. Scientists remain hopeful that the rover still has some life left in it, but warn that it’s possible the rover is indeed dead.

One of the final hopes for NASA engineers is that the rover’s solar panels were simply caked with dust when it was swallowed up by the storm. If that is the case, the only thing that could possibly save the rover’s only power source would be if that dust was blown away, and as luck would have it the coming season is perfect for doing just that.

“A windy period on Mars — known to Opportunity’s team as “dust-clearing season” — occurs in the November-to-January time frame and has helped clean the rover’s panels in the past,” NASA explains in a new update post. “The team remains hopeful that some dust clearing may result in hearing from the rover in this period.”

If the solar panels are covered in dust and can’t generate enough power to recharge the rover’s batteries, a steady flow of wind could solve that problem. NASA is hoping that the rover’s panels will clear enough that the vehicle wakes back up and begins sending messages back home once more, but if it doesn’t we might finally see the end of a mission that has already outperformed NASA’s wildest expectations.

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.”

Moon-faring robotics startup ispace is going to catch a ride with SpaceX

SpaceX certainly has a lot on its plate already, with its BFR rocket under construction, a deadline with NASA, and a space tourist program all coming very soon, but it’s still striking new deals despite its packed schedule. In a new announcement, lunar robotics company ispace (yes, the tiny “i” is intentional, don’t ask me why) has just announced that it’s teaming up with SpaceX for a its first missions to the Moon.

The company says that SpaceX will deliver its lunar lander and rovers to the Moon on Falcon 9 rockets in a pair of missions split between 2020 and 2021.

If the name ispace doesn’t ring a bell it’s because the company itself is fairly new, but it definitely has some history. It was born out the Google Lunar XPRIZE competition — which ultimately ended without a true winner — and ispace is now managing Hakuto which was one of the finalists still toiling away at its lunar robotics concepts.

Positioning itself as a frontrunner in Moon exploration, ispace fancies itself “a company developing robotics for lunar delivery and resource exploration.” However, it still obviously needs the oomph to deliver its hardware to the Moon, and that’s where SpaceX comes in.

“We are entering a new era in space exploration and SpaceX is proud to have been selected by ispace to launch their first lunar missions,” Gwynne Shotwell, SpaceX President, said in a statement. “We are looking forward to delivering their innovative spacecraft to the Moon.”

The missions will be flown under a program titled Hakuto-R. “Hakuto” is a reference to a Japanese folk tale about a white rabbit on the Moon, and the “R” stands for “reboot,” according to ispace.

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.

The clock is now officially ticking on NASA’s sleeping Opportunity rover

Even if you aren’t particularly interested in space or science news you’ve probably heard about the plight of NASA’s Opportunity rover. The plucky robot, which has far outlived its initial mission and has been conducting “bonus” science work for over a decade since, was swallowed up by a massive dust storm on Mars, cutting off sunlight and causing it to lose power due to lack of solar energy for its batteries.

That was in early June, and even though the skies above the rover have become bright again there’s been no sign that the rover has woken back up. Now, with hope and patience both dwindling, NASA has officially started the countdown to declaring the rover officially dead.

In its most recent mission update, the Opportunity team explained that it was planning a 45-day countdown throughout which it would make an effort to wake the robot back up. As Gizmodo explains, that timer began ticking on Wednesday of this week, and now everyone has to hold their breath and wait for the bot to phone home.

There are a number of different things that could have happened to the rover that would have caused it to shut down. The first, a low-power fault, is the most likely culprit. Such a fault would cause the rover to enter a sort of hibernation where it would wake up occasionally to check its power levels. When the Sun began hitting its solar panels and charging its battery again, the rover should notice the full batteries and begin communicating again.

It hasn’t.

That means something else might have gone wrong. A clock fault, where the rover loses track of time and doesn’t know when to check in or attempt to send a signal. An uploss fault occurs when the rover goes too long without talking to its handlers on Earth and assumes something is wrong with its own communication hardware. Even if Opportunity had experienced all three of these faults, the 45-day window should be enough time to negate them, as long as its batteries have power.

That last point is obviously the biggest question mark of them all. Nobody knows what Opportunity looks like right now, whether its solar panels are covered in dusty soil or if sun is actually able to reach them. Likewise, the rover’s battery might have been damaged from the extensive downtime and could be broken. If we never hear from Opportunity again we might never know what actually happened to the friendly rover, but we’ll keep our fingers crossed that it wakes back up soon.