The Union Recorder

March 12, 2013

Computer headaches on Mars

Beate Czogalla
The Union-Recorder

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.

Turning the whole thing off and back on might fix it — and destroy all the evidence of what went wrong. Or it won’t fix it, and then the engineers could send up a software patch that essentially tells the machine to ignore the bad part of the memory and bypass it. It’s a little bit like the brain which often finds ways to circumvent a traumatic injury and teach other areas to do the job.

So far the Curiosity Rover has exceeded all expectations and worked like a dream, and it seems the engineers have the situation under control — there are contingency plans for just about everything — a solution for every “what if” scenario. Let’s hope they get the rover back to work soon and find a way to either fix or bypass the memory.

The whole issue is a perfect example of “better to have it and not need it than to need it and not have it.”

Thank goodness for redundancy!

Did you know Curiosity is on Twitter? Yes, it actually tweets messages! Check it out at https://twitter.com/MarsCuriosity

Beate Czogalla is the Professor of Theater Design in the Department of Theatre and Dance at Georgia College & State University. She has had a lifelong interest in space exploration and has been a Solar System Ambassador for the Jet Propulsion Laboratory/ NASA for many years. She can be reached at   our_space2@yahoo.com