Mars Express Experiences Multiple ‘Safe Mode’ Events

by Nancy Atkinson on November 1, 2011

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An illustration showing the ESA's Mars Express mission. Credit: ESA/Medialab

Mars Express has been a fixture in orbit around the Red Planet for almost eight years, but problems with the spacecraft’s computer memory has put the orbiter into safe mode and science observations have been halted for the time being. The spacecraft has gone into safe mode three times since mid-August, twice being recovered successfully. It has also had additional problems with its memory during this time. ESA says a technical work-around is being investigated that will enable the resumption of a number of observations, which will hopefully evolve into a long-term solution.

Safe mode is operational mode designed to safeguard both the spacecraft itself and its instrument payload in the event of faults or errors.

The portion of Mars Express’s computer the Solid-State Mass Memory (SSMM) system, which stores data before sending it on to Earth was not able to either write new data or read the previous data already in memory. The SSMM is a critical subsystem, central to all spacecraft and instrument operations.

Timeline of recent safe mode and anamolous events for Mars Express. Credit: ESA

This is not the first time the spacecraft has gone into safe mode. Three years ago a similar event took place, but now this multiple occurrence of problems has the Mars Express team looking for inventive solutions. The memory system has been switched to the “B” side or redundant computer, but the same fault took place, putting the spacecraft back in safe mode.

Another issue with the spacecraft going into safe mode is that is uses a lot of reserve fuel – as much as is required for six months of normal operations — so the frequent instances of this mode has engineers looking for a long-term solution. Most of the fuel consumption when entering safe mode is the ‘Sun acquisition’ process for letting the spacecraft know where it is in space, which requires a significant amount of spacecraft maneuvering.

ESA says they are making good progress with finding an alternative approach to commanding Mars Express, and will test it soon, and work continues on the finding a full solution to the memory problems.

Source: ESA

About 

Nancy Atkinson is Universe Today's Senior Editor. She also works with Astronomy Cast, and is a NASA/JPL Solar System Ambassador.

Anonymous November 2, 2011 at 3:31 AM

Did they try turning it off then on again?

IVAN3MAN_AT_LARGE November 2, 2011 at 4:42 AM

Its operating system is probably Windows Vista!

Anonymous November 2, 2011 at 11:26 AM

use memcheck lol,
also bake it and put in freezer

Anonymous November 2, 2011 at 4:01 PM

Am wondering if any of these failures happened during CME passages at Mars? If so, where was the Mars Express in it’s orbit at the time?

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