Glitch Forces Mars Orbiter to Reboot Main 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 Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter has unexpectedly rebooted its main computer and entered a protective safe mode after being hit by stray cosmic ray or solar particle as while circling the red planet.

The event occurred Wednesday night at 9:10 p.m. EDT (0110 June 4 GMT) and appears similar to a glitch that stalled the powerful Mars orbiter?s science work in February, mission managers said.

?The flight team is cautiously bringing the orbiter back to normal operations,? orbiter project manager Jim Erickson at NASA?s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., said in a statement released Thursday. ?We should be resuming our exploration of Mars by next week."

Erickson said flight controllers are in contact with the beleaguered Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, which is beaming home data and is otherwise in good shape.

The orbiter has entered the so-called safe mode six times since it launched toward Mars in 2005. The mode is a safety precaution that allows the spacecraft to hunker down and await instructions from Earth when it detects a condition that it does not have a specific response for, mission managers said.

The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter last entered safe mode on Feb. 23, when it detected a power spike that ultimately turned out to be a false reading. Engineers later determined that the erroneous signal was most likely caused by a cosmic ray or solar particle hitting the orbiter?s sensitive electronics.

A similar event is suspected in this week?s malfunction, mission managers said.

The $720 million Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter arrived at the red planet in October 2006 and successfully completed its initial two-year mission in 2008. The probe?s Mars survey has since been extended through at least 2010.

The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter is not the only ailing spacecraft currently at the red planet. Down on the planet?s surface, NASA?s Mars rover Spirit is stuck up to its hubcaps after snaring its six wheels in deep Martian sand.

The rover recently used a camera on its robotic arm to take a snapshot of its belly so engineers can get a better look at its sandy quagmire. Engineers are hopeful they can free the long-lived Spirit rover so that it can continue its exploration of a region on Mars that scientists have dubbed ?Home Plate.?

Spirit and its robotic twin Opportunity, which is working fine and recently passed the 10-mile mark in its own Martian travels, have been exploring the red planet since 2004.

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