The Union Recorder

Columns

March 12, 2013

Computer headaches on Mars

MILLEDGEVILLE — It’s every computer owner’s worst nightmare: “It’s not working!”

Your 900 page romance novel — gone. Your life-changing invention and all the documentation — gobbledegook. Today’s date — November 36, 2047.

Yep, your computer has issues.

Fortunately for you, you can pack the little demon up and carry it to a computer repair shop, where the people who’ve seen it all fix it (for a price — which you most likely will be happy to pay because, like most people, you don’t back up your data every five minutes), and might even be able to recover some of your files.

Aggravating — yes, but at least you can do something.

Now imagine your billion-dollar baby sits on another planet, and computer-wonkiness ensues. There is no fix-it geek you can call. You’re on your own, and all you have is a radio connection, and it takes up to 40 minutes for you to get a reply.

Such is the life of the Curiosity software engineers these days. Somehow — and they’re still trying to figure out exactly what happened — the memory in Curiosity’s data banks got corrupted, causing it to behave erratically: it won’t send back science data and it won’t go into sleep mode when scheduled.

So nope, giving it a swift kick in the CPU or a quick whack against the side isn’t going to fix it.

Luckily, nothing in a project of this magnitude gets sent out on a mission without a backup, and once again, here is perfect proof why redundancy in space exploration is an absolute must. Curiosity has two identical computers - side A and side B. A has been running the show since before the landing in August, and it’s the one with the bad memory sector.

Engineers are confident they got it all sorted out by switching bit by bit over to the B-side, but before they are going to resume science operations full-tilt they want to find out what happened and how to get the A-side back into working mode to function as the new backup.

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