NASA announced that the Cassini spacecraft in orbit around Saturn will have its suite of scientific cameras offline until at least Nov. 24. Cassini is currently in safe mode due to a malfunction in the spacecraft’s computer. This shut down all non-essential systems to prevent any further damage happening to the spacecraft. This means that all scientific efforts on the mission have been suspended until the problem can be resolved.
Although these seem like severe issues, mission managers are relatively sure that they will have no serious long-term effects on the overall mission. Cassini entered safe mode around 4 p.m. PDT (7 p.m. EDT) on Tuesday, Nov. 2. Managers want to review what took place onboard Cassini, correct what they can and ensure that this doesn’t happen again. Programmers have already ascertained that the likely cause of the problem was a faulty program code line that made its way back to Cassini.
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Ordinarily when faulty code is sent from Earth to Saturn, Cassini would reject any coding that is deemed ‘bad.’ However, this did not happen in this case, causing the problem. Controllers are not totally convinced that a solar fare didn’t corrupt the code on its way out to the gas giant.
“The spacecraft responded exactly as it should have, and I fully expect that we will get Cassini back up and running with no problems,” said Bob Mitchell, Cassini’s program manager at JPL. “Over the more than six years we have been at Saturn, this is only the second safing event. So considering the complexity of demands we have made on Cassini, the spacecraft has performed exceptionally well for us.”
Cassini launched from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station back in 1997 atop a Titan rocket. In the thirteen years since that time it has entered ‘safe’ mode a total of six times.
The largest loss for Cassini’s planners is this will cost them a flyby of Titan, one of Saturn’s moons and the only moon in the solar system with an appreciable atmosphere. All is not lost however, as there are still some 53 possible flybys of the moon currently scheduled. The mission is currently planned to last until 2017.
The Cassini-Huygens mission is a cooperative program managed between NASA, the European Space Agency (ESA) and the Italian Space Agency. JPL, a division of the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) manages the Cassini program for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate located in Washington, D.C.