Friday, January 30, 2009

Mars Spirit Rover is acting strangely


1800 Martian days after it landed on the planet, the Mars Spirit Rover is acting strangely. 

The unexpected bad behavior isn't strange like HAL, but it could be strange like an old laptop. For some unknown reason, the rover has had on-and-off problems accessing its permanent memory and completing standard operations like driving around taking pictures of Mars. 

"We don't have a good explanation yet for the way Spirit has been acting for the past few days," said the Jet Propulsion Laboratory's Sharon Laubach, chief of the team that writes and checks commands for the rovers. 

Spirit's fellow Martian rover Opportunity appears to be in fine condition. Both bots have been roving the midsection of Mars for more than 20 times the planned 90-day length of their missions. The NASA-JPL team will run diagnostic tests on the rover this week. The problems could be short-lived. It's possible that cosmic rays hit some vital electronics, causing them to temporarily malfunction.

But if there is a serious problem with Spirit, it would come at an inopportune time. The next (bigger, badder) rover mission, the Mars Science Laboratory, was recently delayed for two years and won't launch until fall of 2011. (The MSL recently received the nickname, Rickroll, when fans of Rick Astley took over a Wired Science poll.) 

The Mars rovers' project manager, John Callas of JPL, remained upbeat, however.  

"Right now, Spirit is under normal sequence control, reporting good health and responsive to commands from the ground," Callas said.


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