NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) has suffered a computer glitch, which put the distant observatory into hibernation.
This $720 million project to explore the Red Planet was launched back on August 12, 2005. The MRO arrived at Mars seven months later, on March 10, 2006. In addition to conducting direct studies of Mars, the observatory also acts as a communications relay between the Earth and two rovers on the Martian surface. That was, until something recently went wrong.
The incident occurred on March 9, during an unscheduled swap from one computer to another onboard the craft. During the procedure, the MRO put itself into standby mode, shutting down the science operations aboard the observatory. Similar incidents have occurred four other times. The most recent of these shutdowns happened in November of 2011.
Investigators are still trying to piece together why computer swaps occasionally cause these shutdowns. Hibernation mode has been triggered several other times in the orbiter for reasons not related to the swaps.
Unique to this incident was a command from the craft to transfer communications to a redundant radio transmitter after the failure of the primary device. Engineers will attempt to re-establish full operations using the newly-selected transmitter, while investigating what went wrong to trigger the swap. Mission controllers are working to restore the otherwise-durable observatory to full operating condition, but insist the orbiter is still capable of being restored.
"The spacecraft is healthy, in communication and fully powered. We have stepped up the communication data rate, and we plan to have the spacecraft back to full operations within a few days," Dan Johnston, project manager of the program, said.
While the MRO is in hibernation mode, the Mars Odyssey orbiter, in orbit since 2001, has taken over duties as a communications link between the Red Planet and Earth. The two rovers still patrolling the rusty surface of Mars are Curiosity and Opportunity.
The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter was launched on a two-year mission, and has been transmitting data for eight years. This has allowed study of long-term climatic, as well as seasonal changes on the surface of the planet.
It contains six science payloads, including a high-resolution camera called HiRise, or the High-Resolution Imaging Science Experiment. One of the goals of the mission is to determine if water existed on the surface of Mars long enough for life to have formed.
The MRO is a veteran craft that has provided years of great scientific data, and should soon be back on the job after a few days of rest.