Opportunity Rover Sidelined by Charged Particle Hit

Article written: 5 Feb , 2009
Updated: 24 Dec , 2015

The Opportunity rover recently surpassed the five-year mark on Mars. And what did she get as a birthday present? A thorough zapping by a charged particle, perhaps a cosmic ray, which has sidelined the rover for the past several days. “Opportunity stood down for a few sols as a result of a PMA (Panoramic Mast Assembly) error,” said Scott Maxwell, one of the rover drivers for the two Mars Exploration Rovers, Opportunity and Spirit. “This turned out to be due to an SEU (Single-Event Upset), as reported by the on-board motor controller.” An SEU happens when a charged particle whizzes through a transistor on the rover and flips a bit somewhere inside. “Fortunately, the motor controllers can detect and report these events, so that the rover can safely stop,” Maxwell told Universe Today. “We have good reason to hope that Opportunity’s PMA is undamaged and that she’ll be back on the road shortly.” The PMA is the rover’s “neck and head;” it is the mast that holds the Panoramic Cameras, the Navigation Cameras and the Mini-Thermal Emission Spectrometer. It would be a critical blow to the mission to lose any or all of these instruments. The Spirit rover may also have been hit recently by a cosmic ray, causing her to “loose her memory” for a short period. The good news is that Spirit seems to be back to normal and has resumed driving again.

No images from the Pancams or Navcams have been downloaded to Earth for the past four days, since sol 1787 (today is sol 1791 for Opportunity.) Opportunity has been traversing quite quickly on her way to Endeavour Crater, about 12 kilometers (7 miles) away. That distance would match the total distance Opportunity traveled from 2004 to mid-2008. Even at the 100-meter plus pace each sol, which “Oppy” was able to do back in December, the journey could take two years.

“The terrain Opportunity is passing through is good driving terrain,” said Maxwell, “although not quite a parking lot, but nothing she can’t handle. With the help of our “Martian satellite navigation system” (that is, the beautiful high-resolution orbital images we get from MRO), we expect to continue making good time through this dune field on the way to Endeavour.”

We’ll keep you posted on Opportunity’s status.

Latest panorama from Opportunity from Sol 1770.  Credit: NASA/JP

Latest panorama from Opportunity from Sol 1770. Credit: NASA/JP

Spirit resumed driving Saturday, albeit just a short drive, after engineers performed diagnostic tests to determine the cause of “unusual behavior” by the rover last week. On Spirit’s Sol 1800, the rover did not save information into its non-volatile flash memory, so the information was lost when the rover next powered down. She also seemed to be disoriented, and was not able to locate the sun correctly.

“We may not find any data that will explain what happened on Sol 1800, but there’s no evidence that whatever happened then has recurred on subsequent sols,” said Jacob Matijevic of the rover engineering team at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena. One possibility is that a cosmic-ray hit could have temporarily put Spirit temporarily into a mode that disables use of the flash memory.

Spirit drove only about 30 centimeters (1 foot) Saturday, during the 1,806th Martian sol. The rover team had commanded a longer drive, but Spirit stopped short after its right-front wheel, which no longer turns, struck a partially buried rock. The rover drivers prepared commands Monday for the next drive in a slightly different direction to get around that rock.

Raw image from Spirit from her Sol 1806.  Credit: NASA/JPL

Raw image from Spirit from her Sol 1806. Credit: NASA/JPL

Spirit is just north of a low plateau called “Home Plate.” It spent 2008 on a north-facing slope on the edge of Home Plate so that its solar panels stayed tilted toward the winter sun for maximum electrical output.

Spirit drove down off Home Plate on Jan. 6, 2009. It subsequently checked whether a patch of nearby soil, called “Stapledon,” had a high concentration of silica, like a silica-rich patch of soil Spirit discovered east of Home Plate in 2007. The earlier discovery was interpreted as evidence left by a hot-spring or steam-vent environment. Examination with Spirit’s alpha particle X-ray spectrometer confirmed silica at Stapledon. This indicates that the environment that deposited the silica was not limited to the location found earlier.

Sources: JPL, email exchange with Scott Maxwell

42 Responses

  1. Eric says

    Unless her memory used to be too tight, I’d rather say that Spirit lost her memory. :p Hyperlink in the first paragraph.

    Let’s hope the story of the two little rovers that could will continue for a long time.

  2. robby says

    Eric, I’m certain the developers of Spirit knew sooner or later Spririt will get hit by CRs or UltraHighEnergyCosmicRays, and had the foresight to account fo this. The rovers has already far exceeded expectations of its’ developers and others and its useful lifespan.
    These little rovers wll continue until the harsh
    elements eventually conks them out, but I hope for a least until the next generation rovers are on Mars for their missions.

  3. Tim says

    Forgive my ignorance, but would this propensity to be bombarded by charged particles effect the development of microbial life on Mars? Does it only cause real harm to electronic equipment? I mean, if they can bullseye our rovers like this, would that mean they can, at least from time to time, rain down on the planet and neutralize vulnerable cells? Would it effect the chances of life on Mars at all? Is it a well established limitation for the current consideration of life on such planets with weak magnetic fields? Should I add another question mark?

  4. RobbiNewman says

    Get well soon…we all need a little CPH every now and then.

  5. RobbiNewman says

    oh…PS I see theres another robbi in the universe…

  6. Barak says

    The present solar minimum means that cosmic rays are having an easier time entering the solar system (usually there’s about a 6 to 9 month lag). The Mars rovers arrived during a cosmic ray minimum (as measured by neutron monitors) and the neutron levels have been ramping up since then. Events like this will be more likely for a while yet.

  7. robby says

    Tim, there are different feeds that talked of this issue. I would think microbial life would be have to buried deep in the ground of Mars. Your are correct when saying about raining down on our atmosphere. An enormous amount of CosmicRays constantly bombards our atmosphere, persons on the manned space vehicles are hit by many, they will not fell it and studies which will take many years to figure out if persons whose in Earths’ orbit for months had their lifes affected. Frequent flyers get more CosmicRays than what will reach the surface of the ground.There are at
    least 1 UltraHighEnergyCosmicRay or UHECR hitting 1 per square mile of Earths Atmosphere every day-these have the kenetic
    energy of baseball throw by a good fastball pitcher-this will eventually hit persons in manned vehicles if in orbit long enough, they will feel nothing. Cromosomes can be damaged,destroyed but again, much research is required. You have probably heard when the Sun is erupting, there is no spacewall allowed as charged particles from the Sun can probably destroy enough cromosomes and vastly shorten lifespans of exposed humans in space. These UHECR,. the Sun is not capable of producing them, perhaps not even a ‘run of the mill’ type 2 supernova but a supermassive star 50-100 times the Suns mass that collapses into a black hole-most likely the cause of the gamma-ray burst detected by gamma-ray detector satillites and then rapidly notify the astronomers to see the visible light and use other orbiting types of other detectors. There are other incredibly violent events occuring in our universe that is capable of producing UHECR. Our Earths atmosphere protects humans from the damaging effects of cosmic rays, but eventually, some will hit surface humans. An interesting article or series of articles has a theory that about .1% or 6,000,000 humans die yearly from cancer who had no history of cancer in their family nor in a cancerous area or food.-these are the very mysterious cancer cases with no
    known causes but perhaps from outer space.
    All animal lifeforms on earth have their cromosomes change and evolves throught time for better or worst.
    I am not an expert in these matters but understood enough to know about the dangers of cosmic rays, Your questions are interesting and in a way may have answered your own question, however, I’m not an expert in those matters as it is beyong my education and career. Please read other feed having to do with LHC and others. My career ended as a Network Administrator,-there are others on these feeds who are far more knowledgable about physics, space medicine, others in the professional science spectrum which is beyond my knowledge.

  8. “There’s no observational evidence that I know of that indicates electric and magnetic forces are important on cosmological scales.” — Jeremiah P. Ostriker, astrophysicist, 1991

    Interesting. Tell that to the electricity on Mars.

  9. Hoku says

    Astronauts in orbit have reported seeing brief flashes of light, sometimes in only one eye. The general theory is that their optic nerves have been struck by cosmic rays, or rather charged particles, originating from the sun, and the flashes they see are not really light at all but are due to a temporary loss of signal by the optic nerve.

  10. Howard Toburen says

    It’s kind of hard to accept that people who can’t master the basics of a their own language really are reliable sources of scientific knowledge either.

  11. jones says

    Howard Toburen-this is not a forum for the proper use of grammar-people may not review their posts before entering nor do they bother with wordspell, this is a non-formal forum of feed matters, not something that will be published in science papers.

  12. Astrofiend says

    Tim Says:
    February 5th, 2009 at 4:46 pm

    In answer to your questions – yes on all counts really; absolutely. There are microbes on Earth that are extremely hardy and resist radiation damage well, but these are very few and far between. They are a sub-category of the so-called extremophiles – microbes that can take an absolute beating from various environments that would be toxic to most other life. An example of a different type of extremophile would be the bacteria that thrive around the thermal vents of the mid-oceanic ridges – they routinely deal with temperatures of greater than 400 deg. C, under extreme pressure, and deriving their energy from chemicals such as sulfides that are extremely toxic to almost all other life.

    Such microbes are rare, but the point is that It can be done, which would mean that it is possible maybe for life to deal with intense radiation blasts, but any life that evolved on the surface of Mars would have to adapt to such high doses or perish.

    It is one reason why many scientists think that if life is to be found on mars, it may be underground where radiation is less of a consideration.

  13. Astrofiend says

    # OilIsMastery Says:
    February 5th, 2009 at 7:20 pm

    “”There’s no observational evidence that I know of that indicates electric and magnetic forces are important on cosmological scales.” — Jeremiah P. Ostriker, astrophysicist, 1991

    Interesting. Tell that to the electricity on Mars.”

    >>>Oills, you really go above and beyond in trying to shoehorn your obsession into each and every conversation, don’t you? Man, your friends must love chatting with you. I can see it now:

    F: “Hey Oills, how was your day?”

    F: “Want a beer?”

    F: “Wow, the moon looks beautiful tonight”

    F: “Alright man, check ya later…”

    P.S – Yep – immature. But I’m an immature person, which, come to think of it, is probably why I post on here and not the forum. Kind of like you I’m guessing, but I reckon you don’t post on the forum because you can’t deal with the people there tearing your theory apart!

  14. Astrofiend,

    I take it you think charged particles are an effect of gravity and not electricity?

  15. robbi says

    Hoku- during the Apollo missions to the Moon, far from the atmosphere of Earths’ atmosphere a few astronauts said they saw flashes in front of them, perhaps a few feet or even further away and some lasted relatively long. For quite a long time, most astronauts did not want to admit they saw these flashes as they believed people will think they were hallucinating and ‘homesick’. As the general population began to understand about cosmic rays, these quiet astronauts finally opened up and described what they saw. Because they were far away from any type protection of Earths’ atmosphere and truly in ‘outer space’ , cosmic rays was not blocked and the frequency of flashes was much greater than being in low Earth orbit.
    Your answer to the cause of the flashes is very interesting and sound. I wonder what the effects will be for humans on a round trip flight to Mars? …………. however, there are far too many kinks, problems, issues yet to resolved to even think of about sending anyone to Mars, I would say such a voyage will probably be put off until the end of the century, so the answer will have to wait a long time.

  16. robbi says

    Robbi/Newman- Lol, I did not realize my selected nickname ‘out of the blue’ was ‘already in use’. If you don’t mind, perhaps I can keep my nickname with a small ‘r’ so we don’t confuse others.
    Please let me know what U think.
    Take care

  17. robbi says

    “There’s no observational evidence that I know of that indicates electric and magnetic forces are important on cosmological scales.” — Jeremiah P. Ostriker, astrophysicist, 1991

    Interesting. Tell that to the electricity on Mars.
    I admit I’m not an expert on gravity nor electricity , but !?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!
    try dust EOM…………………………………………..

  18. Mikel says

    “loose her memory”


  19. robbi says

    Mikel It may as well been stated:
    ‘to be conked out’ for a short period. lol

  20. Timmy says

    I think this is the beginning of the rovers becoming self-aware.

  21. Olaf says

    “Forgive my ignorance, but would this propensity to be bombarded by charged particles effect the development of microbial life on Mars? Does it only cause real harm to electronic equipment?”

    For space craft this is taken into account by using what they call space hardned hardware. Chips and microprocessors are special buitd to have additional resistor to release the charge buildup when cosmic rays hit the chips. Also rendundancy is used.

    Here on Earth we are a bit more protected, but these particles also hit you computer and electronics and DNA.

    It is like a bullet. One cosmic ray at the wrong place means cancer or a crash, luckily those cosmic rays do not always hit that critical spot.

  22. Olaf says

    Google on “Radiation Hardening In Space” it will help to understand how electronics are designed for space.


  23. Olaf says

    OilIsMastery, may I advice you to do following steps?

    1. Start to think for yourself and check your facts from independent sources.
    2. Buy a book about electronics, start reading it, so at least you have a basic understanding about electronics, electric fields and magnetic fields.
    3. Get a calculator and start using the formulas you have learned from the electronics books to have some sense of scale.
    4. Now start to read astronomy books, especially about gravity and orbits and vacuum
    5. Now use the calculator and try to use the formula’s you used of the electronics on cosmic scale. Have a sense of scale.

    The again, you might now want to do this all, because you will feel awful stupid once you start to realize you have been selling snake oil.

  24. robbi says

    Olaf- great advice for OillsMastery- however,
    in any public forums or feeds, there will be someone who can’t be reasoned with,dispite the reasonable data given to that person.

  25. Olaf,

    1. Done. Here are my independent sources: Thales, Herakleitos, Anaxagoras, Leukippos, Zeno, Melissos, Demokritos, Aristotle, Epikouros, Lucretius, Maricourt, Gilbert, Hobbes, Descartes, Leibniz, Gray, Franklin & Watson, Maupertuis, Kant, Faraday, Maxwell, Mach, Heaviside, FitzGerald, Lodge, Poincaré, Thomson, Tesla, Hertz, Birkeland, Størmer, Langmuir, Davisson, Heisenberg, Velikovsky, Alfvén, Bostick, Carlqvist, and Peratt.

    2. Done. See above referenced authors who you’ve obviously never read.

    3. I don’t need a calculator because I actually use my brain.

    4. Done. Here are my sources refuting vacuums: Anaxagoras, Leukippos, Zeno, Melissos, Demokritos, Aristotle, Epikouros, Lucretius, Hobbes, Leibniz, Maupertuis, Kant, and Mach. And here are my sources refuting gravity: Leibniz, Mach, Poincaré, and Velikovsky.

    5. Done. My conclusion is plasma is scalable. See Birkeland, Størmer, Alfvén, Bostick, Carlqvist, and Peratt.

  26. Barak says

    # OilIsMastery Says:”

    “There’s no observational evidence that I know of that indicates electric and magnetic forces are important on cosmological scales.” — Jeremiah P. Ostriker, astrophysicist, 1991

    Interesting. Tell that to the electricity on Mars.”

    What kind of idiot thinks Mars is big enough to register on a cosmological scale? I don’t think you have the faintest idea what Ostriker was saying.

  27. Barak,

    Since cosmos means “all,” Mars is a part of it. If the objects of experience are not a part of the cosmos then the cosmos is not an object of experience and has no place in science but belongs in the realm of metaphysics and theology.

  28. I forgot to mention Kepler:

    “The example of the magnet I have hit upon is a very pretty one, and entirely suited to the subject; indeed, it is little short of being the very truth.” — Johannes Kepler, astronomer/mathematician, 1609

    “It is therefore plausible, since the Earth moves the moon through its species and magnetic body, while the sun moves the planets similarly through an emitted species, that the sun is likewise a magnetic body.” — Johannes Kepler, astronomer/mathematician, 1609

    “But come: let us follow more closely the tracks of this similarity of the planetary reciprocation [libration] to the motion of a magnet, and that by a most beautiful geometric demonstration, so that it might appear that a magnet has such a motion as that which we perceive in the planet.” — Johannes Kepler, astronomer/mathematician, 1609

  29. Astrofiend says

    OilIsMastery Says:
    February 5th, 2009 at 11:26 pm

    “I take it you think charged particles are an effect of gravity and not electricity?”

    ?!? – why would you ‘take’ that?

    I think particles can have possess the following types of ‘charge’: electric, ‘colour’, weak isospin and mass. Based on a little thing called evidence.

    P.S. – continued ‘appeals to authority’ don’t prove a thing. They do not constitute a scientific result. The great thing about science is that empirical evidence is the arbiter of right and wrong – it doesn’t matter in the least what a ‘great’ scientist thinks if his thoughts disagree with experiment in the end. Honestly Oills – your misconceptions about gravity are simply astounding, as evidenced by a great many of your posts. If you truly think you’re going to overthrow Relativity, then you would need to at least understand the what the theory says in the first place in order to address what you claim to be it’s deficiencies. But you clearly do not. Simply claiming that some obscure ‘scientist’ who lived hundreds of years ago reckoned that ‘such-and-such was the case’ won’t cut it.

  30. Olaf says

    Olaf- great advice for OillsMastery- however,
    in any public forums or feeds, there will be someone who can’t be reasoned with,dispite the reasonable data given to that person.

    I agree with you Ribbi, I have been investigating much deeper about this EU, and it is not worth discussing it. It is just a pile of small parts that are true put together with duct tape, some of those clames are maybe 70 years old and far outdated in order to sell a book.

    At first it makes a plausable alternative explanation but when you actually test it, use some small calculations then it gets very clear that it is uttermost bullshit. It is full of clames, but no actual numbers, no predictable outcome that can actually be checked and verified. And especially no sense of scale, some effects do exist but only on very small scale like laboratory and no bigger than the solar system.

    So OilIsMastery , take that calculator start calculating some small formula’s with your theory and see for yourself that it simply does not work! Not on cosmological scale!

  31. Olaf says

    I agree with you Astrofiend,
    no matter how many nobel prices and no matter how intelligent somone is, if we test it and the test fail, then that person is dead wrong.

    You can only impress people with EU that have no knowledge, but the moment they start to take out the calculator and check for themselves, then you instantly know that EU is just not working.

    Ah yes there are some other red flags that EU is some fluffy theory.
    * Fluffy clames, no hard clames.
    * No hard numbers, no predictions. The only predictions I have seen so far is what you would expect from a horoscope.
    * Telling that it is a conspiracy to by the scientists to hide the real truth.
    * Tell that the standard model has flaws so EU must be true (whoever is so dumb to fall for this logic?)
    * Tell them you have written a book about it.
    * Spam science sites to promote your theorie.
    * Use big names so people will not dare to check up those names so you can hide the facts that you also do not know what it all means.
    * Many many more…

  32. Olaf says

    Ah yes, those EU promoters, I saw on all those discussions, well they have mostly no clues themselves what their are talking about.

    * They can copy and paste.
    * They can give a list of names.
    * They can use word games.

    But so far no one I have seen actually understand himself what EU means and how it works.

    I believe in Star Trek it is called technobable, just put together some nice technical jargon you just invented and pretend that it is solid science. ROFL

  33. I guess all the laboratory experiments confirming the Electric Universe and Plasma Cosmology at Los Alamos National Laboratory are a figment of everyones’s imagination.

  34. Ahora says

    Well explained Olaf.

    “The Electric Sun”, what a load of rubbish and many more.

  35. Ahora,

    Do know what an electron is?

    Do you even know what electricity is?

  36. bob says

    This site is not good for a child at the age of 8 to be looking at. I’m very disapointed.

  37. Ahora says

    More rubbish from EU:

    “Craters are formed, not by meteorites, but lightning strikes”

    Are these people really that stupid !?

  38. Andy says

    Hey, wait for me!

    Reading something they can understand, that seems to make sense, that presents itself as technically competent, non-scientists are easily gulled by fake science. –Henry H. Bauer

    The less one knows about science, the more plausible Velikovsky’s scenario appears…. –Leroy Ellenberger

    I would not trust any alleged citation by Velikovsky without checking the original printed sources. — Michael Friedlander

    Velikovsky (1895-1979), a psychiatrist by training, did not base his claims on astronomical evidence and scientific inference or argument. Instead, he argued on the basis of ancient cosmological myths from places as disparate as India and China, Greece and Rome, Assyria and Sumer. — The Skeptic’s Dictionary

    Carl Sagan, one of Velikovsky’s most ardent critics, argued that if Venus had been ejected out of Jupiter, the required amount of energy would have
    heated Venus so much the planet/comet would have vaporized. And even if somehow the planet had managed to survive the ejection the temperature, even thousands of years later, claimed Sagan, would have been much greater
    than those found today. — The Unmuseum

    Here’s a brief summary of some of Velikovsky’s ideas:
    * Planet Earth has suffered natural catastrophes on a global scale, both before and during mankind’s recorded history.
    * There is evidence for these catastrophes in the geological record.
    * The catastrophes which occurred within the memory of mankind are recorded in the myths, legends and written history of all ancient cultures and civilizations.
    * The cause of these natural catastrophes were close encounters between the Earth and other bodies within the solar system — not least of which are now the planets Saturn, Jupiter, Venus and Mars, these bodies having moved upon different orbits within human memory.
    (Here’s my favorite!)
    * To explain the celestial mechanics necessary to permit these changes to the configuration of the solar system, Velikovsky thought that electromagnetic forces might somehow play a greater role to counteract gravity and orbital mechanics.

    Yeah, you tell ’em Immanuel! I wouldn’t let gravity and orbital mechanics get in the way of my ideas either!

    My only problem with bashing Velikovsky is that there’s just too much material to sort through.

  39. Olaf says

    OilIsMastery, I have a few questions, this time no formula’s needed I just want to know your basic understanding of electricity.

    * What is an electric field?
    * What is electricity?
    * What is a magnetic field?
    * How are magnetic fields an electric field related?
    * What is plasma?
    * How do you get plasma?
    * How can plasma exist in space?
    * How do electrons move through a copper wire?
    * Why do electrons move?
    * For electrons to move do you always need a medium?
    * What is really happening when you move a wire through a magnetic field and why?
    * Can you have a curent flowing without voltage difference?
    * If you put a lot of capacitors in series, how are the charge distributed and why? I am wondering how the charge is distributed in the center capacitors.

    I don’t want formula’s or references or so, I want to see if you really understand your EU.

  40. Olaf says

    OilIsMastery, I have no doubt that you have explanied previous questions, so now move on to the EU theories that I tried to understand.

    Am I correct that the electricity flows through the plasma as one closed electric loop from the sun to the planets?

    * So how does this loop, does the electricity moves from equator to equator or from pole to pole?

    * If it does not loop like a closed circuit, but because of voltage differences between planets so where does that voltage difference of the planets come from? How do they get charged and why?

    * How does the electricity flow through the plasma? How dense is this plasma and how much current is flowing through this plasma?

    * Does this plasma have any drag on the planets? Slowing them down?

  41. Olaf says

    OilIsMastery , Some more questions:

    * Oh yes about gravity so if I am correct that is because the atoms are aligned, in one spin direction that causes gravity? How is this done, why do they align?

    * If the spin of atoms to aligned to create gravity, would everything, not automatically be aligned then? I am just wondering why a MMR scanner works since it depends on the rotation of the atoms.

    * If I stand on my head, will I feel anti-gravity since the atoms spin in the wrong direction?

    * Everything is based on electricity, if I dig a deep hole like a mine, how can I measure this electricity flowing through the 1 km shaft? How much current will I measure and what direction will it flow?

    * What is the mechanism that plasma in 2.7 Kelvin space stays plasma? Why does it not revert to none-plasma when an electric current passes sthrough it?

    * How much electricity would be needed to create that Martan trunk, and how close would planet have been to actually create such a electric surge?

    These are the first few questions I am interested in for OilIsMastery to answer. It is clear that OilIsMastery has a much bigger understandin of this all whe I look at all the references he gave me and actually understands it all.

    I could have asked trick question but I did not, all these questions shoulds be fairly easy to be explained by someone in his first years of school when studying electricity.

  42. Olaf says

    You know, most of electricity/electronics is very easily to understand, but typical text-book explanations and even professors explain it too complicated.

    I want to know if OilIsMastery really understand what it all means, and not some copy and paste or something he just memorized.

    One of the things that did supprise me in electricity is how electrons actually move through a copper wire. But it is so logical, but back then it was something very wierd.

    And you are no going to tell me that you understand EU if you do not understand how electricity moved through copper wire and why.

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