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Curiosity enters 'safe mode' after memory is corrupted, possibly by cosmic rays

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Curiosity self portrait
Curiosity self portrait

A memory issue on NASA's Curiosity Mars rover has led engineers to switch the rover's operations onto its backup computer. NASA says Curiosity is currently in a "safe mode" while its backup computer is updated to take control of the rover — once it's running again, the rover will be able to use the backup system for it's primary operations. The issue shouldn't result in any long-term disruptions for Curiosity.

The memory issue was caught on Wednesday when engineers noticed that Curiosity had not sent recorded data back to Earth or switch into a daily sleep mode as it was expected to. The error was caused by corrupted memory files that led to a glitch on the rover's primary computer. The cause of the corrupted memory is still uncertain, but reports that the memory may have been damaged by cosmic rays — radiation that originates in space. The rover's hardware is meant to shield against the radiation, but it's possible that some particles may have made it through the rover's shell.

NASA's team hopes to make software adjustments to protect against future occurrences of the glitch. The team will eventually revert Curiosity to its primary computer to make sure that both systems are functional, but it will be at least several more days before the rover is fully configured to run on its backup computer. After landing on Mars in August, the rover recently began drilling into the planet's surface — it shouldn't be long before Curiosity is off again in search of evidence that the planet once had water.