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Stepping into the Twilight Zone: Day 33, or, Curiosity Killed by a Cosmic Ray

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Editor’s note: Researchers exploring Mars via rover and satellite have to adapt to the longer day on the Red Planet. Katie Worth, whose Can Earthlings Adapt to the Longer Day on Mars? for Scientific American last month describes the consequences of sleep-pattern changes, is trying it out herself. Follow her experiences in living on “Mars time” at this blog to see how it affects her sleep and behavior. This post is the tenth in a series.

a recent Mars Curiosity rover self-portrait

The Curiosity rover's self-portrait at 'John Klein' drilling site on Mars.

A little known fact about my Mars time experiment is that when I started, I aligned my schedule to the Curiosity Rover’s. I liked the idea that when I woke up, whatever the Sun was doing here in Santiago, it would be starting to light up Curiosity’s adorably anthropomorphic helmet head.

Since I’m likely the only person on the planet who’s been on Curiosity’s schedule for the last month, I thought I’d compare what we each have each achieved in that period. It was a foregone conclusion that if Curiosity’s productivity was in a footrace against mine, the robot’s would do an imitation of Usain Bolt while mine would imitate Usain Bolt hopping on one leg. In fact, my productivity was ready to go home and eat a tub of ice cream to console itself for getting slaughtered in competition.

But that’s why PE teachers everywhere tell you not to give up just because you’ve been lapped twice by every other girl in the class—because out of nowhere, they could get hit by a rogue cosmic ray, leaving you to dawdle in and claim the prize. And luckily for my competitive nature, that’s exactly what happened to Curiosity last week.

On Thursday, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory announced that the robot’s primary onboard computer, called A-Side, had a major memory glitch, and they had been forced to switch the robot’s controls over to its redundant secondary computer, B-Side. A-Side was still communicating fine with its Pasadena-based control team, and would send information about its current status, but not any data it had recorded that day, implying that its memory had gone haywire. It also failed to power down into its daily sleep mode when it should have, a form of robotic insomnia that I can relate to but that alarmed its crews.

These are the first major malfunctions since Curiosity landed on the Red Planet seven months ago, and the team’s best guess so far is an errant cosmic ray zapped A-Side into its amnesiac state. Cosmic rays have been a problem for spacecraft before, and can easily whiz through Mars’s thin atmosphere, which is even sparser at Curiosity’s location in Gale Crater, at the top of a 16,000-foot mountain.

The timing of this crisis is especially frustrating, since Curiosity was working on its most exciting science experiment to date:  Pulverizing Martian rock and studying it. Unlike any other robot NASA has sent to Mars, Curiosity is equipped with a drill. In mid-February, after months of delays, it finally deployed the drill on a rock dubbed the “John Klein Rock” after a late JPL scientist.  The drill ground about a tablespoon of alien powder and then scooped it up and began analyzing it, hoping to find signs that microbial life may once have existed in Gale Crater.

But before that analysis could be completed, A-Side had its on-the-job accident. As of Monday, the JPL crew was trying to determine if A-Side was salvageable, and simultaneously educating B-Side about what it missed in the seven months since the Rover landed. They hope to get the rover analyzing its precious powder once again by next week.

So what have I done while Curiosity has been exploring the possibility of life on our neighbor planet, and fending off attacks by high-energy particles? I have gotten sleep deprived and whined about it ad nauseum, even though it’s been way more tolerable than, say, what the parent of any human infant has been through. I have conducted a pseudo-science experiment and squeezed ten blogs out of it. I went camping without camping gear, successfully sought out Santiago’s street food at 6 A.M., and so far, avoided walking under a bus. I didn’t drill into an extraterrestrial landscape in search of life, but I did take a screwdriver to a cupboard door that’s been hanging wrong for about a year. And just like Curiosity, I took a couple of selfies.

And slowly, my life has returned to normal. My prescribed bedtime lately is near midnight, and I’ve been awaking just as the sun crests the Andes. I only have a few more days until I wrap up this long, strange trip and go back to my normal state, which also involves whining ad nauseum about being sleep deprived but not having a good excuse for it.

For those of you who I’ve inspired to live by Curiosity’s schedule (and I’m sure there are thousands of you), you can download an app to tell you what time it is in Gale Crater to your phone or computer, and you too can spend your time imagining the sun gliding over the currently dazed face of our friendly planetary exploration robot.

Image credit:NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

Previously in this series:

Step into the Twilight Zone: Can Earthlings Adjust to a Longer Day on Mars?
Step into the Twilight Zone: Day 1
Step into the Twilight Zone: Day 4 on Mars Time, aka Easy Peasy Lemon Squeezy
Step into the Twilight Zone: Day 8 on Mars Time, aka Camping on Mars (Time)
Step into the Twilight Zone: Day 11 on Mars Time, in Which I Give Myself Cancer
Step into the Twilight Zone: Day 15 on Mars Time, or Adventures in Extraplanetary Day Drinking
Step into the Twilight Zone: Day 18, Cuddle Cafes and the Dangers of Dozing
Step into the Twilight Zone: Day 22 on Mars Time – Meteoric Changes to the Earth Day, as Told by a Thousand Tired Decisions
Step into the Twilight Zone: Day 25, or A Walk Through Santiago’s Witching Hour
Step into the Twilight Zone: Day 29, or God in Outer Space

Katie Worth About the Author: Katie Worth is a science writer based in Santiago, Chile. Her hobbies include hiking, living in large foreign cities, and clicking the “random article” button on Wikipedia. She expects this blog to become less and less coherent as she becomes more and more sleep-deprived.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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