Curiosity Mars rover recovers from mystery camera complication

12 Jul 2016

This self-portrait of NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover is a mosaic of multiple images taken with the arm-mounted Mars Hands Lens Imager, via NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

Following the surprise of the Curiosity Mars rover self-initiating ‘safe mode’, the Red Planet’s most famous inhabitant is now back to its best.

On 2 July, Curiosity caught NASA engineers by surprise, going into safe mode in a move that was in no way planned for. Essentially, less than 48 hours before Juno stole the limelight by reaching Jupiter for NASA’s latest landmark mission, one it’s most famous projects was crying out for attention.

Initially, NASA engineers thought there might be a problem with how they send and receive image data to Curiosity.


Preliminary information indicated an unexpected mismatch between camera software and data-processing software in the main computer.

Engineers immediately began taking steps to return Curiosity to “full activity” before running diagnostics on the problem and, as of yesterday (11 July), it’s back to work.

“The most likely cause of entry into safe mode has been determined to be a software mismatch in one mode of how image data are transferred on board,” said NASA, which said that the suspect mode will no longer be used, which will have little bearing on the mission.

Amid the worries over Curiosity’s fate, NASA had actually approved a two-year extension to the mission. It had not gone into safety mode since 2013, meaning its near three years of uninterrupted work ended over the US’ Independence Day weekend.

The rover landed on Mars back in 2012 and, through its image gathering and scientific tools, has established that the planet once had lakes and rivers.

More than 3bn years ago the region of Gale Crater offered environmental conditions well-suited to supporting microbial life, if life has ever existed on Mars. In continuing investigations, the mission is learning more about the ancient wet environments and how and when they evolved to drier and less habitable conditions.

Elon Musk, the man behind the revolutionary SpaceX company, thinks we could send humans to Mars in less than a decade.

SpaceX’s first mission to Mars is slated for 2018. Working alongside NASA, SpaceX’s Dragon 2 will be as much a research mission as anything else.

Gordon Hunt was a journalist with Silicon Republic