The Curiosity rover has performed admirably on Mars for more than seven years, but there have been a few bumps along the way. After all, it was only designed to last a few years. NASA reports that Curiosity has suffered a system failure that left the robot unaware of its position and attitude on the red planet. Until it recovers, Curiosity is frozen in place.
Curiosity arrived on Mars in 2012, making history with its wildly successful rocket sled landing system. Since then, it has traversed the terrain in Gale Crater and climbed the slopes of Mount Sharp, relaying data on the red planet’s geologic past. Thanks to Curiosity, we have a better idea of where water existed (and may still exist) on Mars, as well as where we might be able to find evidence of ancient life.
Mars is far enough away that we can’t directly control Curiosity in real-time — the rover gets batches of commands and then carries them out. That means it needs to have precise awareness of the state of all its joints, as well as environmental details like the location of nearby obstacles and the slope of the ground. This vital information ensures the rover doesn’t bump anything with its arm or clip large rocks as it rolls along.
Curiosity stores all this attitude data in memory, but something went wrong during operations several days ago. As the rover was carrying out its orders, it suddenly lost track of its orientation. The attitude data didn’t add up, so Curiosity froze in place to avoid damaging itself. While the rover is physically stuck in place, it’s still in communication with the team here on Earth.
Since everything else is working on the rover, NASA was able to develop a set of instructions that shouldget the rover moving again. When transmitted, the data will inform Curiosity of its attitude and confirm its current state. This should allow the rover to recover and keep performing its safety checks. However, NASA also hopes to gather data on what caused the issue in the first place. The hope is they can avoid another freeze-up in the future.
While NASA hopes to get more use out of Curiosity, the agency is hard at work on the upcoming Mars 2020 rover. That mission is set to launch this summer, arriving on Mars in early 2021.