Solar Storm Blasting to Mars Shuts Down Curiosity – 1st Rocky Sample Results on tap

Due to a fast approaching solar storm, NASA has temporarily shut down surface operations of the Curiosity Mars Science Lab (MSL) rover.

NASA took the precautionary measure because ‘a big coronal mass ejection’ was predicted to hit Mars over the next few days starting March 7, or Martian Sol 207 of the mission, researchers said.

The rover team wants to avoid a repeat of the computer memory glitch that afflicted Curiosity last week, and caused the rover to enter a protective ‘safe mode’.

“The rover was commanded to go to sleep,” says science team member Ken Herkenhoff of the US Geological Survey (USGS).

“Space weather can by nasty!”

This is the 2nd shutdown of the 1 ton robot in a week. Curiosity had just been returned to active status over the weekend.

A full resumption of science operations had been anticipated for next week, but is now on hold pending the outcome of effects from the solar storm explosions.

“We are making good progress in the recovery,” said Mars Science Laboratory Project Manager Richard Cook, of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, prior to the new solar flare.

“Storm’s a-comin’! There’s a solar storm heading for Mars. I’m going back to sleep to weather it out,” tweeted Curiosity.

Solar flares cause intense bursts of radiation that can damage spacecraft and also harm space faring astronauts, and require the installation of radiation shielding and hardening on space based assets.

Since Mars lacks a magnetic field, the surface is virtually unprotected from constant bombardment by radiation.

NASA’s other spacecraft exploring Mars were unaffected by the solar eruptions – including the long lived Opportunity rover and the orbiters; Mars Odyssey & Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.

Curiosity has been in the midst of analyzing the historic 1st samples of gray rocky powder ever cored from the interior of a Martian rock about a month ago.

Curiosity’s First Sample Drilling hole is shown at the center of this image in a rock called “John Klein” on Feb. 8, 2013, or Sol 182 operations. The image was obtained by Curiosity’s Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI). The sample-collection hole is 0.63 inch (1.6 centimeters) in diameter and 2.5 inches (6.4 centimeters) deep. The “mini drill” test hole near it is the same diameter, with a depth of 0.8 inch (2 centimeters). Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS
Curiosity accomplished Historic 1st drilling into Martian rock at John Klein outcrop on Feb 8, 2013 (Sol 182), shown in this context mosaic view of the Yellowknife Bay basin taken on Jan. 26 (Sol 169) where the robot is currently working. The robotic arm is pressing down on the surface at John Klein outcrop of veined hydrated minerals – dramatically back dropped with her ultimate destination; Mount Sharp. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Ken Kremer/Marco Di Lorenzo

Eventually, the six-wheeled mega rover will set off on a nearly year long trek to her main destination – the sedimentary layers of the lower reaches of the 3 mile (5 km) high mountain named Mount Sharp – some 6 miles (10 km) away.

So far Curiosity has snapped over 48,000 images and traveled nearly 0.5 miles.

Curiosity’s goal is to assess whether the Gale Crater area on Mars ever offered a habitable zone conducive for Martian microbial life, past or present.

Ken Kremer

Ken Kremer

Dr. Ken Kremer is a speaker, research scientist, freelance science journalist (KSC area,FL) and photographer whose articles, space exploration images and Mars mosaics have appeared in magazines, books, websites and calendars including Astronomy Picture of the Day, NBC, FOX, BBC, SPACE.com, Spaceflight Now, Science and the covers of Aviation Week & Space Technology, Spaceflight and the Explorers Club magazines. Ken has presented at numerous educational institutions, civic & religious organizations, museums and astronomy clubs. Ken has reported first hand from the Kennedy Space Center, Cape Canaveral, NASA Wallops, NASA Michoud/Stennis/Langley and on over 80 launches including 8 shuttle launches. He lectures on both Human and Robotic spaceflight - www.kenkremer.com. Follow Ken on Facebook and Twitter

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