NASA commands the Mars Curiosity rover to switch 'brains'

Curiosity has a headache but NASA neurosurgeons have stepped in to keep the car-sized robot operational.

Jackson Ryan Former Science Editor
Jackson Ryan was CNET's science editor, and a multiple award-winning one at that. Earlier, he'd been a scientist, but he realized he wasn't very happy sitting at a lab bench all day. Science writing, he realized, was the best job in the world -- it let him tell stories about space, the planet, climate change and the people working at the frontiers of human knowledge. He also owns a lot of ugly Christmas sweaters.
Jackson Ryan
2 min read

While the Opportunity rover is yet to be roused from its dust-induced sleep, NASA has performed digital brain surgery on Curiosity.

Since Sept. 15, the Curiosity rover, originally launched in 2012, has encountered a few technical issues. It's struggling to send back to Earth much of the science and engineering data it has collected. That small hiccup has seen engineers at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory decide to switch to Curiosity's second brain.

Curiosity has two computers -- which NASA lovingly called "brains" -- on board because redundant systems are important for exploring distant lands, of course. With the glitch affecting the "Side B" computer, JPL engineers have switched to Side A. That will allow the engineers to diagnose just what is causing Curiosity woe.

Notably, Side A was the "brain" that Curiosity was using when it landed on the red planet in 2012. On sol 200, almost 2,000 sols ago, NASA engineers switched to Side B because of hardware and software glitches that saw Curiosity ignoring orders as its battery drained.

"We are operating on Side A starting today, but it could take us time to fully understand the root cause of the issue and devise workarounds for the memory on Side B," explained Steven Lee, Curiosity's deputy project manager.

Though it's possible to continue its mission exclusively using Side A, once the problem is found and repaired, JPL will look to switch back to Side B because that computer has a much larger memory.

It hasn't been a particularly great few months for Mars rovers. With the mammoth dust storm that settled over the planet blocking vital sunlight at the beginning of June, NASA's other rover -- Opportunity -- has been hibernating. The organisation is holding out hope that Opportunity will be back online soon. Curiosity's prospects are a lot better, but it will take time to fully understand what's preventing the rover from storing and sending data.

NASA's wildest rides: Extreme vehicles for Earth and beyond

See all photos

NASA turns 60: The space agency has taken humanity farther than anyone else, and it has plans to go further.

Taking It to Extremes: Mix insane situations -- erupting volcanoes, nuclear meltdowns, 30-foot waves -- with everyday tech. Here's what happens.