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Uh oh: NASA’s Curiosity rover just suffered a puzzling glitch on Mars

Published Jan 23rd, 2020 2:51PM EST
curiosity glitch
Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

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It’s been a while since NASA was forced to pull the plug on its Mars rover Opportunity. The trusty bot fell silent after a dust storm on Mars cut off its solar power source and even after the skies cleared, it never woke back up. Curiosity, the newest Mars rover on the planet, was still working splendidly, but a recent glitch is leaving its handlers scratching their heads.

In a new update by NASA, the Curiosity team reveals that the rover had been performing well up until it “forgot” some of its own positioning information. For the moment, the rover is “frozen” until engineers can restore it to a functional state.

Robots like the Curiosity rover aren’t like humans when it comes to moving their limbs. Machines like the Mars rover have to store the position of their own limbs and instruments in memory, using that information to decide how to move when a new command comes in. If the rover somehow forgets all or part of the information related to its position and orientation, it will refuse to move in order to prevent damage to itself.

NASA explains:

Partway through its last set of activities, Curiosity lost its orientation. Some knowledge of its attitude was not quite right, so it couldn’t make the essential safety evaluation. Thus, Curiosity stopped moving, freezing in place until its knowledge of its orientation can be recovered.

The good news is the rover is still communicating with its handlers back on Earth. With this connection still up and running, the rover’s team can restore its attitude information and will then test to ensure it can move safely. At the same time, the team wants to figure out exactly why this issue cropped up in the first place, so it would seem there are busy days ahead for the Curiosity team.