NASA's Mars rover may be in trouble after month of silence

Scientists waiting to see if new commands will put Opportunity back to work

NASA engineers are waiting to see if they can pull a long-running Mars rover out of stand-by mode.

The Mars rover Opportunity, which has been working on the Red Planet for more than nine years, put itself into stand-by mode this month during a period when communications with its handlers on Earth were cut off.

Earlier this month, communication with all NASA's machines working on Mars became spotty and then stopped all together because the sun was almost directly in the path between Earth and Mars.

The solar conjunction is just ending, and as communications began to be restored, NASA on Saturday learned of Opportunity's troubled status.

On Monday, NASA programmers sent new commands to Opportunity to try to get the robotic rover to resume operations.

"Our current suspicion is that Opportunity rebooted its flight software, possibly while the cameras on the mast were imaging the sun," said Mars Exploration Rover Project Manager John Callas, in a statement. "We found the rover in a standby state called automode, in which it maintains power balance and communication schedules, but waits for instructions from the ground. We crafted our solar conjunction plan to be resilient to this kind of rover reset, if it were to occur."

NASA engineers believe Curiosity, the super rover that landed on Mars last August and is Opportunity's successor, came through the solar conjunction without a problem. Curiosity's controllers plan to send it a new set of commands on Wednesday to get the super rover working again.

During the solar conjunction, all the machines working on Mars were given special instructions. NASA scientists gave the two working robotic rovers, Curiosity and Opportunity, as well as the orbiters, Odyssey and the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, instructions to do minimal work during the time they were out of contact.

The two rovers were commanded to remain stationary for the month and to not use their robotic arms.

This article, NASA's Mars rover may be in trouble after month of silence, was originally published at Computerworld.com.

Sharon Gaudin covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld. Follow Sharon on Twitter at @sgaudin, on Google+ or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed. Her email address is sgaudin@computerworld.com.

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This story, "NASA's Mars rover may be in trouble after month of silence" was originally published by Computerworld.

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