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NASA Mars Orbiter Comes Out of Precautionary 'Safe Mode'

NASA's MRO art
An artist's illustration of NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter at the Red Planet. (Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

A long-lived NASA Mars orbiter appears to be bouncing back from a glitch that halted its science work nearly two weeks ago. 

NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) put itself into a precautionary "safe mode" on Feb. 15 after measuring abnormally low voltage in its paired nickel-hydrogen batteries, which keep the solar-powered spacecraft running when it's cruising through Mars' shadow.

Mission team members brought MRO out of safe mode on Friday (Feb. 23), NASA officials said. The orbiter seems to be in good health overall; the battery voltage is back to normal, MRO is communicating with Earth, and temperatures and power levels are stable, agency officials said.

But MRO's handlers haven't put the orbiter back to work yet.

"We're in the diagnostic stage, to better understand the behavior of the batteries and ways to give ourselves more options for managing them in the future," MRO project manager Dan Johnston, of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, said in a statement. "We will restore MRO's service as a relay for other missions as soon as we can do so with confidence in spacecraft safety — likely in about one week. After that, we will resume science observations."

The $720 million MRO mission launched in August 2005 and arrived at the Red Planet in March 2006. Over the past dozen years, the orbiter has performed a variety of tasks, from hunting for signs of past water activity to scouting out locations for future Mars missions to relaying data from landed craft such as NASA's Opportunity and Curiosity rovers.

To date, MRO has beamed home about 317 terabits of data — more than all other interplanetary missions combined, NASA officials said.

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Mike Wall
Mike Wall

Michael Wall is a Senior Space Writer with and joined the team in 2010. He primarily covers exoplanets, spaceflight and military space, but has been known to dabble in the space art beat. His book about the search for alien life, "Out There," was published on Nov. 13, 2018. Before becoming a science writer, Michael worked as a herpetologist and wildlife biologist. He has a Ph.D. in evolutionary biology from the University of Sydney, Australia, a bachelor's degree from the University of Arizona, and a graduate certificate in science writing from the University of California, Santa Cruz. To find out what his latest project is, you can follow Michael on Twitter.