Curiosity Shuts Down for Solar Storm

This self-portrait of NASA’s Mars Curiosity Rover includes a sweeping panoramic view of its location in the Yellowknife Bay region of Gale Crater. The impressive mosaic was constructed using frames from the rover’s Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) and Mastcam. Used to take in the panoramic landscape frames, the Mastcam is standing high above the rover’s deck. But MAHLI, intended for close-up work, is mounted at the end of the rover’s robotic arm. The MAHLI frames used to create Curiosity’s self-portrait exclude sections that show the arm itself and so MAHLI and the robotic arm are not seen. Credit: NASA, JPL-Caltech, MSSS – Panorama by Andrew Bodrov

Due to a fast approaching solar storm, NASA has temporarily shut down surface operations of the Curiosity Mars Science Lab (MSL) rover.

NASA took the precautionary measure because ‘a big coronal mass ejection’ was predicted to hit Mars over the next few days starting March 7, or martian Sol 207 of the mission, researchers said.

The rover team wants to avoid a repeat of the computer memory glitch that afflicted Curiosity last week, and caused the rover to enter a protective ‘safe mode’.

“The rover was commanded to go to sleep,” says science team member Ken Herkenhoff of the US Geological Survey (USGS).

Space weather can by nasty!”

This is the 2nd shutdown of the 1 ton robot in a week. Curiosity had just been returned to active status over the weekend.

A full resumption of science operations had been anticipated for next week, but is now on hold pending the outcome of effects from the solar storm explosions.

“We are making good progress in the recovery,” said Mars Science Laboratory Project Manager Richard Cook, of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, prior to the new solar flare.

“Storm’s a-comin’! There’s a solar storm heading for Mars. I’m going back to sleep to weather it out,” tweeted Curiosity.

Solar flares cause intense bursts of radiation that can damage spacecraft and also harm space faring astronauts, and require the installation of radiation shielding and hardening on space based assets.

Since Mars lacks a magnetic field, the surface is virtually unprotected from constant bombardment by radiation.

NASA’s other spacecraft exploring Mars were unaffected by the solar eruptions – including the long lived Opportunity rover and the orbiters; Mars Odyssey & Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.

Curiosity has been in the midst of analyzing the historic 1st samples of gray rocky powder ever cored from the interior of a martian rock about a month ago.

This still from a video based on data from the Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO) shows a sunspot emerging from depth in February 2011. Video available at: Credit: Thomas Hartlep and Scott Winegarden, Stanford University

The 7 foot (2.1 meter) long robotic arm fed aspirin sized samples of the gray, pulverized powder into a trio of inlet ports atop the rover deck that lead into the miniaturized Chemistry and Mineralogy (CheMin) and Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) instruments on Feb. 22 and 23, or Sols 195 and 196.

Meanwhile, NASA has just announced that the science results from these 1st sample analyses will be revealed at a media briefing set for March 12 that will be carried live on NASA TV at 1 PM EDT.

The gray sample tailings were collected on Feb. 8, 2013 (mission Sol 182). Curiosity used the rotary-percussion drill mounted on the tool turret at the terminus of the robotic arm to bore a narrow 0.63 inch (16 mm) wide circular hole about 2.5 inches (64 mm) deep into the ‘John Klein’ outcrop of flat, fine-grained, sedimentary bedrock shot through with mineral veins of Calcium Sulfate that formed in water.

Curiosity survived a daring and unprecedented, rocket assisted pinpoint touchdown inside Gale Crater exactly 7 months ago on Aug. 5, 2012 to begin the 2 year long primary mission phase.

Ever since touchdown, the state of the art robot has generated sensational worldwide interest from the general public and space enthusiasts alike.

The Curiosity science team believes that her current work area at an area called ‘Yellowknife Bay’ experienced repeated percolation of flowing liquid water billions of years ago when Mars was warmer and wetter – and therefore was potentially more hospitable to the possible evolution of life.

At the center of this image from NASA’s Curiosity rover is the hole in a rock called "John Klein" where the rover conducted its first sample drilling on Mars. The drilling took place on Feb. 8, 2013, or Sol 182, Curiosity’s 182nd Martian day of operations. Several preparatory activities with the drill preceded this operation, including a test that produced the shallower hole on the right two days earlier, but the deeper hole resulted from the first use of the drill for rock sample collection. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

Eventually, the six-wheeled mega rover will set off on a nearly year long trek to her main destination – the sedimentary layers of the lower reaches of the 3 mile (5 km) high mountain named Mount Sharp – some 6 miles (10 km) away.

So far Curiosity has snapped over 48,000 images and traveled nearly 0.5 miles.

Curiosity’s goal is to assess whether the Gale Crater area on Mars ever offered a habitable zone conducive for martian microbial life, past or present.

Editor’s Note: According to Curiosity’s recent tweet on Friday, March 8th, everything is just fine:

Curiosity Rover
– "That all you got Sun? The solar storm was less energetic than predicted so no sleeping in tosol. Operations have resumed."

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