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NASA's Curiosity rover suffers glitch on Mars, freezes up

NASA's only working Mars rover had an attitude problem.

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This Curiosity image from Jan. 17 shows the end of the rover's robotic arm.

NASA/JPL-Caltech

Can a Mars rover have an existential crisis? NASA's Curiosity rover was wondering just exactly what its place is on Mars after experiencing a technical glitch. 

"Partway through its last set of activities, Curiosity lost its orientation," wrote Curiosity team member Dawn Sumner, a planetary geologist at University of California, Davis, in a mission update this week. 

The rover stores in memory its body attitude and joint orientation. This includes details of the local landscape, the location of its robotic arm and the directions its instruments are pointing. It's all the data that helps the rover know exactly where it is on Mars and how to move about safely. 

"Curiosity stopped moving, freezing in place until its knowledge of its orientation can be recovered," Sumner wrote. 

Curiosity stayed in touch with its team back on Earth. "The engineers on the team built a plan to inform Curiosity of its attitude and to confirm what happened," Sumner said. 

Good news came in the form of another mission update. "We learned this morning that plan was successful and Curiosity was ready for science once more," wrote NASA atmospheric scientist Scott Guzewich

The rover team will work to prevent this glitch from happening again. 

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NASA has several machines on Mars and in orbit around the Red Planet, but Curiosity is the agency's only working rover at the moment. It has survived and thrived despite a history of technical glitches that have occasionally delayed its science mission. 

The resilient rover is expecting company on Mars. NASA is planning to launch the new Mars 2020 rover this July, but it intends to keep Curiosity up and running.

Originally published Jan. 22.
Update, Jan. 23, 9:19 a.m. PT:  Adds that the recovery plan was successful.