NASA Fixes Computer Glitch on Mars Science Laboratory

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Engineers have fixed the glitch that caused a computer reset on the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) spacecraft shortly after it launched toward Mars in November, NASA officials announced Feb. 9.

The reset occurred Nov. 29 — three days after MSL blasted off from Florida atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket — while the spacecraft was using its star scanner, a navigational tool. NASA engineers determined that the glitch was caused by a previously unknown idiosyncrasy in the memory management unit of the spacecraft’s computer processor.

Researchers reconfigured a test computer on Earth, and the reset did not recur after billions of runs. The mission team then made the software change on the spacecraft’s computer the last week of January and confirmed the week of Feb. 6 that the update was successful, NASA officials said.

“Good detective work on understanding why the reset occurred has yielded a way to prevent it from occurring again,” MSL Deputy Project Manager Richard Cook of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, Calif., said in a statement. “The successful resolution of this problem was the outcome of productive teamwork by engineers at the computer manufacturer and JPL.”

The Mars-bound spacecraft began normal use of its star tracker after the software update, and the instrument detected the red planet.

“Our target is in view,” said JPL’s Steve Collins, attitude control subsystem engineer for the spacecraft’s cruise from Earth to Mars.

The centerpiece of NASA’s $2.5 billion Mars Science Laboratory mission, the Curiosity rover, is due to land at Mars’ Gale Crater in early August of this year.

The 1-ton rover’s chief aim is to gauge whether the Gale Crater area can, or ever could, support microbial life. Most of Curiosity’s 10 different science instruments are built to help the rover answer this question.