NASA works to wake up Curiosity as mission gets two-year extension

May 11, 2016 self-portrait of NASA's Curiosity Mars rover(Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS)

NASA's Curiosity Mars rover has been cleared for another two-year extended mission to study the Red Planet – if it can wake up. Since July 2, the unmanned explorer has been in safe mode, and although Curiosity is said to be stable and reporting back to mission control at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, engineers are trying to find out why it ceased most of its activities.

Curiosity relies on sophisticated computer systems, and as anyone who's ever used a computer knows, sophisticated computer systems have a tendency to seize up for no apparent reason from time to time. The problem is, using the standard operating procedure of turning it off and on again is often not the best option for spacecraft like Curiosity because it might not turn back on again. This is very bad when the reset button is over a hundred million miles away.

Instead, when Curiosity encounters a problem, it reverts to a safe mode, which shuts down most of its systems and software to prevent the problem from cascading while engineers try to sort things out. According to NASA, on July 2, the nuclear-powered rover experienced some sort of a glitch and stopped most of its tasks as it went through a pre-programmed sequence to make sure it was still operating and in contact with Earth.

NASA is still trying to figure out the problem, but the most likely culprit is a mismatch between camera software and data-processing software in the main computer. Curiosity has been ordered to carry out more diagnostics, which will allow the engineers to make the necessary corrections. NASA says that this is the fourth time Curiosity has entered safe mode since the first time in 2013 so there's no reason to panic.

If all goes well, the Curiosity mission, which was originally allotted two years of running time when it landed in 2012, will be given a second two-year extension beginning on October 1.

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