Curiosity sleeps as solar blast races toward Mars (Update)

Mar 06, 2013 by Alicia Chang
This image provided by NASA shows an image captured by NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory of a blast of plasma streaming from the sun in August 2012. Scientists say a solar eruption was detected on March 5, 2013 and was headed toward Mars. NASA's Curiosity rover will postpone some activities but other Mars missions will operate normally.(AP Photo/NASA)

Curiosity hunkered down Wednesday after the sun unleashed a blast that raced toward Mars.

While the hardy rover was designed to withstand punishing space weather, its handlers decided to power it down as a precaution since it suffered a recent computer problem.

"We're being more careful," said project manager Richard Cook of the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which runs the $2.5 billion mission.

While Curiosity slept, the Opportunity rover and two NASA spacecraft circling overhead carried on with normal activities.

On Tuesday, scientists noticed a huge flare erupting from the sun that hurled a stream of radiation in Mars' direction. The solar burst also spawned a cloud of superheated gas that barreled toward the red planet at 2 million mph (3.2 million kph).

The eruption did not appear severe or extreme, but "middle of the road, all things considered" said space weather chief Bob Rutledge at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The solar tempest was not expected to have an impact on Earth. In the past, such outbursts have triggered solar storms with the ability to disrupt utility grids, airline flights, satellite networks and GPS services. They're also known to produce shimmering auroras in places farther from the poles.

Since Mars lacks a planet-wide magnetic field, it does not experience geomagnetic storms. Rather, the planet sees a spike in radiation, Rutledge said.

Powerful solar blasts can cause trouble to Mars spacecraft. In 2003, an intense solar flare knocked out the radiation detector on the Odyssey orbiter.

NASA does not expect similar drama from the latest solar activity.

In the worst-case scenario, one or more of the working Mars spacecraft may enter "safe mode" in which science activities are halted but they remain in contact with Earth.

"We'll be watching and seeing what happens," said Roger Gibbs, JPL deputy manager for the Mars exploration program.

The unsettled space weather comes as Curiosity is recovering from a memory hiccup that put its science experiments on hold. It was the first major problem to hit the car-size rover since it landed last year in an ancient crater near the Martian equator to hunt for the chemical building blocks of life.

Engineers were in the middle of troubleshooting when they decided to wait for the weather to pass. The delay means it'll take longer for Curiosity to return to analyzing the pinch of rock powder it collected from a recent drilling.

Since its instruments are turned off, it can't use its radiation sensor to track the solar particles.

"It's just bad timing," Cook said.

Explore further: Red moon at night; stargazer's delight

5 /5 (3 votes)
add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Curiosity rover out of safe mode, recovering

Mar 05, 2013

(Phys.org) —NASA's Mars rover Curiosity has transitioned from precautionary "safe mode" to active status on the path of recovery from a memory glitch last week. Resumption of full operations is anticipated ...

Three generations of rovers with crouching engineers

Jan 20, 2012

(PhysOrg.com) -- Two spacecraft engineers join a grouping of vehicles providing a comparison of three generations of Mars rovers developed at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif. The setting ...

Curiosity self-portrait, wide view

Dec 27, 2012

(Phys.org)—On the 84th and 85th Martian days of the NASA Mars rover Curiosity's mission on Mars (Oct. 31 and Nov. 1, 2012), NASA's Curiosity rover used the Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) to capture dozens ...

Computer swap on Curiosity rover

Mar 01, 2013

(Phys.org) —The ground team for NASA's Mars rover Curiosity has switched the rover to a redundant onboard computer in response to a memory issue on the computer that had been active.

Recommended for you

Red moon at night; stargazer's delight

18 hours ago

Monday night's lunar eclipse proved just as delightful as expected to those able to view it. On the East Coast, cloudy skies may have gotten in the way, but at the National Science Foundation's National Optical ...

Meteorites yield clues to Martian early atmosphere

20 hours ago

(Phys.org) —Geologists who analyzed 40 meteorites that fell to Earth from Mars unlocked secrets of the Martian atmosphere hidden in the chemical signatures of these ancient rocks. Their study, published ...

Let's put a sailboat on Titan

23 hours ago

The large moons orbiting the gas giants in our solar system have been getting increasing attention in recent years. Titan, Saturn's largest moon, is the only natural satellite known to house a thick atmosphere. ...

Image: Rosetta's Philae lander snaps a selfie

Apr 16, 2014

Philae is awake… and taking pictures! This image, acquired last night with the lander's CIVA (Comet nucleus Infrared and Visible Analyzer) instrument, shows the left and right solar panels of ESA's well-traveled ...

User comments : 1

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

deatopmg
1 / 5 (1) Mar 07, 2013
Good thing solar cycle 24 is relatively in active compared to recent earlier cycles otherwise Curiosity would be spending most of its time powered down.

More news stories

Cosmologists weigh cosmic filaments and voids

(Phys.org) —Cosmologists have established that much of the stuff of the universe is made of dark matter, a mysterious, invisible substance that can't be directly detected but which exerts a gravitational ...

Meteorites yield clues to Martian early atmosphere

(Phys.org) —Geologists who analyzed 40 meteorites that fell to Earth from Mars unlocked secrets of the Martian atmosphere hidden in the chemical signatures of these ancient rocks. Their study, published ...

Let's put a sailboat on Titan

The large moons orbiting the gas giants in our solar system have been getting increasing attention in recent years. Titan, Saturn's largest moon, is the only natural satellite known to house a thick atmosphere. ...