curiosityrover

This Curiosity image from Jan. 17 shows the end of the rover’s robotic arm.


NASA/JPL-Caltech

Can a Mars rover have an existential crisis? NASA’s Curiosity rover is wondering just exactly what its place is on Mars after experiencing a technical glitch. 

“Partway through its last set of activities, Curiosity lost its orientation,” wrote Curiosity team member Dawn Sumner, a planetary geologist at University of California, Davis, in a mission update this week. 

The rover stores  in memory its body attitude and joint orientation. This includes details of the local landscape, the location of its robotic arm and the directions its instruments are pointing. It’s all the data that helps the rover know exactly where it is on Mars and how to move about safely. 

“Curiosity stopped moving, freezing in place until its knowledge of its orientation can be recovered,” wrote Sumner.

Curiosity is still in touch with its team back on Earth. “The engineers on the team built a plan to inform Curiosity of its attitude and to confirm what happened,” said Sumner. The scientists will also work to prevent this glitch from happening again. 

NASA has several machines on Mars and in orbit around the Red Planet, but Curiosity is the agency’s only working rover at the moment. It has survived and thrived despite a history of technical glitches that have occasionally delayed its science mission. 

The resilient rover is expecting company on Mars. NASA is planning to launch the new Mars 2020 rover this July, but it intends to keep Curiosity up and running.


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