Mars Orbiter Takes an Unscheduled Breather

In the animal world, the fight-or-flight instinct is a pretty common response to danger. But when you’re a multimillion-dollar spacecraft, caution is usually the only response you get preprogrammed with.

Adding to poor beleaguered NASA’s spate of recent glitches, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter went into safe mode on Monday after suffering what appears to have been an unexpected power surge.

Initial analysis of the flight data shows that the batteries are charged and the solar panels are doing their thing. The orbiter is also “talking” normally to mission control.

“We are going to bring the spacecraft back to normal operations, but we are going to do so in a cautious way, treating this national treasure carefully,” MRO project manager Jim Erickson said in a NASA statement. “The process will take at least a few days.”

That means, for the time being, science operations are stalled until NASA can be sure the craft is healthy enough to get turned back on.

Aside from returning what could be some of the most artful images of Mars, since 2006 the craft has been a steady source of pretty cool science.

For example, just yesterday a joint NASA-USGS team announced MRO’s high-resolution camera caught what appear to be the first evidence for columnar joints on any planet other than Earth.


—Image courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona

Columnar joints are fractures that form as lava cools and contracts. These particular joints, found inside an unnamed crater on Mars, resemble features seen on Earth when water gushes over and cools down basalt flows.

Study author Moses Milazzo, of the USGS, notes in the press release that his favorite place to see columnar joints up close is Grand Falls, east of Flagstaff, Arizona.

“If you hike down to the bottom during the dry season, you’ll cross some perfect examples of columnar joints, which formed when enormous amounts of water flooded the cooling lava,” he said.

Here’s hoping the MRO can safely get back to work soon!

Changing Planet