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NASA’s Curiosity rover entered ‘safe mode’ on Mars, but nobody knows why

Published Feb 25th, 2019 10:12AM EST
curiosity safe mode
Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech

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You know that feeling you get when a piece of technology just isn’t working like it should, but you can’t find the cause? Whether it’s your TV remote or your smartphone, it’s incredibly frustrating. Now imagine that same feeling, only multiplied by 33 million miles and you’ll have a vague idea of what NASA’s Curiosity team is currently feeling.

As NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory explains in a new post, the Curiosity rover experienced a bit of a “hiccup” at the end of last week. The robot entered a default “safe mode” which it does when something goes wrong. Engineers performed a reset of the rover after gathering some diagnostic info and it’s back up and running, but the cause of the glitch remains a mystery.

With a machine as complex as a Mars rover there’s a lot of little things that can go wrong and cause an error. NASA seems encouraged by the quick turn-around in getting the robot back on its feet, but figuring out what went wrong is still important.

“We’re still not sure of its exact cause and are gathering the relevant data for analysis,” JPL’s Steven Lee said in a statement. “The rover experienced a one-time computer reset but has operated normally ever since, which is a good sign. We’re currently working to take a snapshot of its memory to better understand what might have happened.”

Going forward, JPL is taking things slow with Curiosity in an effort to limit any changes it makes to the readings in the vehicle’s memory. It wants to ensure that it doesn’t accidentally overwrite any information that may offer a clue as to the reason for the glitch.

The mysterious downtime comes just days after NASA officially called an end to the Opportunity rover’s mission on Mars. Opportunity was shut down by a dust storm last year and never recovered, leaving Curiosity as the only NASA rover on the planet.