Mars Orbiter Suffers Computer Glitch, Again
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 entered a protective slumber Wednesday - the fourth time this year - after inexplicably rebooting its main computer yet again.

The anomaly popped up early Wednesday as the 4-year-old orbiter circled Mars, marking the third spontaneous computer reboot for the spacecraft this year. In a fourth glitch, which occurred earlier this month, the orbiter switched to its backup computer unexpectedly.

"We hope to gain a better understanding of what is triggering these events and then have the spacecraft safely resume its study of Mars by next week," said Jim Erickson, the spacecraft?s project manager at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., in a statement.

Currently, the $720 million spacecraft is in a protective safe mode awaiting instructions from Earth and is in communications with its mission control team, NASA officials said.

JPL engineers are working to diagnose the ailing orbiter?s problem before making any attempt to resuscitate its six science instruments. The work is expected to take several days. ?

The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter unexpectedly rebooted its main computer in February and June in glitches that engineers initially believed were caused by hits from stray solar particles or cosmic rays. Earlier this month, the spacecraft swapped to its Side B computer, a backup, also for reasons that remain unknown.

In each case, engineers revived the spacecraft after a few days.

NASA launched the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter toward the red planet in 2005. It is the most powerful orbiter ever sent to Mars and has beamed home more data and images than all other missions to the red planet combined.

The orbiter completed its primary mission in late 2008 and is currently in the middle of an extended mission that runs through mid-2010.

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