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Short circuit halts Curiosity rover's Mars activities

An electrical hiccup means the Mars rover will be sidelined for a few days as NASA tries to locate the problem.

Rover drill Curiosity
The rover's drill three days before the short circuit. NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

There's a bit of drama playing out on the Red Planet. NASA's Curiosity rover was in the middle of a routine transfer of powdered Mars material on February 27 when the rover experienced a short circuit. The rover is studying a sample collected during drilling at Telegraph Peak, an outcrop at the base of Mount Sharp. The sample was destined to be fed into the rover's internal CheMin (chemistry and mineralogy) instrument for an assessment of its minerals.

"With the drill bit pointed up and the drill's percussion mechanism turned on, the rock powder was descending from collection grooves in the bit assembly into a chamber in the mechanism that sieves and portions the sample powder," NASA reports in a status update issued Tuesday. This is when the short circuit occurred and Curiosity automatically halted the process.

The sample transfer process took place five times before at other drilling sites with no issues. "We are running tests on the vehicle in its present configuration before we move the arm or drive," said Curiosity Project Manager Jim Erickson. "This gives us the best opportunity to determine where the short is."

Curiosity will be sidelined for several days as the NASA team attempts to locate the cause of the issue. At this time, it's not known how serious it might be or if it will have an impact on the rover's work.

Curiosity landed on Mars in August 2012. This isn't the first time it has bumped into a tricky technical situation. In February 2013, Curiosity suffered a computer glitch that required switching the rover to a backup computer. The troubleshooting was successful and the rover continued with its scientific pursuits. NASA is hoping this current issue will be cleared up, allowing the mission to move forward.