As NASA’s Curiosity rover bounces across Mars’ surface, it keeps constant tabs of how every part of it is oriented. Where its robotic arm is pointed, or how close its instruments are to the ground. That way, it can figure out if a piece of the rover is about to hit an environmental obstacle.
During the middle of a workday earlier this month, Curiosity lost this orientation. “Some knowledge of its attitude was not quite right, so it couldn’t make the essential safety evaluation,” wrote Dawn Sumner, planetary geologist at the University of California Davis, in a post updating Curiosity’s mission. “Thus, Curiosity stopped moving, freezing in place until its knowledge of its orientation can be recovered.”
While Curiosity froze up, it still kept beaming information back to its controllers on Earth. And with that info, the mission team was able to craft a plan to get Curiosity to see how its instruments were positioned.
A recent image showing Curiosity’s robotic arm and the Martian ground under it.
Sumner explains what the team ended up doing. “The engineers on the team built a plan to inform Curiosity of its attitude and to confirm what happened. We want Curiosity to recover its ability to make its safety checks, and we also want to know if there is anything we can do to prevent a similar problem in the future.”
In a follow-up post, Scott Guzewich, atmospheric scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, confirmed the plan to fix Curiosity was a success. “We learned this morning that plan was successful and Curiosity was ready for science once more!” Guzewich wrote on January 21.
With that attitude hiccup fixed, Curiosity was back to work taking measurements of bedrock and snapping pictures of Western Butte.
The team also conducted what they describe as a “rare measurement with APXS to measure the argon abundance in the atmosphere.” Why argon? According to the mission team, 25% of Mars’ carbon dioxide-rich atmosphere condenses on the winter polar ice, but trace gases like argon don’t. This lets the team use the fraction of argon to carbon dioxide to see these seasonal variations in action.
While Curiosity is still kicking thanks to its nuclear power source, it will be getting some company soon. NASA plans to launch its next rover, the Mars 2020 rover, in July/August 2020 with a landing at the Jezero Crater on Feb 18, 2021. NASA is asking the public to help narrow down the name of the newest rover.