NASA’s Curiosity rover had a little attitude problem earlier this week. The issue sidelined the rover for a brief time, but the golf cart-sized robot is back to roaming the red planet.
In rover speak, “attitude” doesn’t mean Curiosity is being sassy, but rather it refers to the robot’s position in space. Curiosity needs to know where it and its robotic arm (which is where the robot’s instruments are kept) are at all times. This helps keep the rover safe.
If Curiosity fails to keep track of its attitude, it could accidentally point one of its cameras towards the sun or even damage an instrument by hitting it on a nearby rock or boulder.
“Partway through its last set of activities, Curiosity lost its orientation. Some knowledge of its attitude was not quite right, so it couldn’t make the essential safety evaluation,” Dawn Sumner, a planetary geologist and Curiosity team member wrote in a mission update on Monday (Jan. 20).
“Thus, Curiosity stopped moving, freezing in place until its knowledge of its orientation can be recovered,” she added. “Curiosity kept sending us information, so we know what happened and can develop a recovery plan.”
Curiosity has explored the Martian surface since 2012, and over the course of its mission, the rover has bounced back from numerous glitches—this was no exception. Thanks to the robot’s handlers, a plan was quickly implemented and Curiosity started moving again.
Their plan was to manually send the robot its location information. Soon after, Curiosity was back in action.
“We learned this morning that plan was successful and Curiosity was ready for science once more!” said Scott Guzewich, mission team member and atmospheric scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, wrote in a subsequent update.
This isn’t the first time the rover dealt with issues. Curiosity has overcome multiple glitches and setbacks during its time on Mars. But thanks to a robust design and a team of highly-skilled engineers, the rover has been able to work through the various issues that have popped up. (Including memory issues as well as damage to its wheels from the rougher-than-expected Martian terrain.)
In fact, Curiosity originally had just a two-year mission, but has performed so well, that the six-wheeled rover is in its seventh year.
The rover landed inside Gale Crater, a 96-mile-wide (154-kilometer) crater in August 2012, and was tasked with assessing the region’s habitability. Did life once flourish in this spot? So far, Curiosity has not found direct evidence of past life on Mars, but the rolling scientist did discover that the spot was once home to a lake and stream system, some time in Mars’s past.
Currently, the rover is exploring the foothills of Mount Sharp, a 3.4-mile-high mountain jetting up from the crater’s center. Here, the rover will look for clues about Mars’s ancient climate and how it changed over millions of years.
Right now, Curiosity is the only functioning rover on the red planet’s surface. NASA’s storied Opportunity rover was shut down following a planet-wide dust storm that blocked out the lift-sustaining sunshine the rover needed to power its batteries.
In July, NASA will be sending its next rover—a souped up version of Curiosity—to Mars. Designed to search for signs of life, the Mars 2020 rover will arrive on the red planet in March 2021. Landing in Jezero Crater, the rover will bag up samples for return to Earth at a later time.
But that’s not all. The European Space Agency (ESA) is teaming with Russia’s Roscosmos to send its own rover to Mars. The Rosalind Franklin, ExoMars rover will also look for signs of past life on Mars.