Powerful Mars Orbiter Switches to Backup Computer
NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter passes over the planet's south polar region in this artist's concept illustration. The orbiter's shallow radar experiment, one of six science instruments on board, is designed to probe the internal structure of Mars' polar ice caps, as well as to gather information planet-wide about underground layers of ice, rock and, perhaps, liquid water that might be accessible from the surface. Phobos, one of Mars' two moons, appears in the upper left corner of the illustration. Image
Credit: NASA/JPL/Corby Waste

NASA?s powerful Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter has recovered from an odd glitch that forced it to switch to a backup computer last week.

Engineers at NASA?s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., successfully revived the orbiter from a protective safe mode and resumed science observations of Mars on Monday, mission managers said.

The 4-year-old Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter is NASA?s youngest spacecraft circling the red planet and the most powerful to date. Since arriving at the red planet in 2006, the orbiter has beamed home more data and images than all other Mars missions combined.

Last week, the orbiter spontaneously switched to its Side B backup computer for reasons still unknown to mission engineers. The computer swap occurred Thursday and sent the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter in to a safe mode for protection while it awaited new instructions from Earth.

Engineers reactivated the orbiter?s systems on Saturday and restarted its science instruments two days later.

The $720 million Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter has entered safe mode seven times since it launched toward Mars in 2005. In two of those instances, one in 2007 and the other in 2008, the spacecraft switched to its backup computer, mission managers said.

The orbiter?s latest glitch has some similarities to the two previous computer swaps, they added.

Earlier this year, the spacecraft entered safe mode on two occasions after unexpectedly rebooting its main Side A computer, most likely due to a hit by a stray cosmic ray or solar particle, mission managers have said. The new malfunction appears to be unrelated to those events, they added.

The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter completed its main mission in 2008 and is currently in the middle of an extension phase that ends in mid-2010.

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