Fri, Mar 08, 2013 - Page 7 News List

Curiosity shut down as solar blast races to Mars

INCOMING:Mars lacks a planet-wide magnetic field, so it does not experience geomagnetic storms like those on Earth, but it does see a spike in radiation

AP, LOS ANGELES

The Curiosity rover hunkered down on Wednesday after the sun unleashed a blast that raced toward Mars.

While the hardy rover was designed to withstand punishing space weather, its handlers decided to power it down as a precaution after it suffered a recent computer problem.

“We’re being more careful,” said project manager Richard Cook of the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which runs the US$2.5 billion mission.

While Curiosity slept, the Opportunity rover and two NASA spacecraft circling overhead carried on with normal activities.

On Tuesday, scientists noticed a huge flare erupting from the sun that hurled a stream of radiation in Mars’ direction. The solar burst also spawned a cloud of superheated gas that barreled toward the red planet at 3.2 million kilometers per hour.

The eruption did not appear severe or extreme, but “middle of the road, all things considered,” National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration space weather chief Bob Rutledge said.

The solar tempest was not expected to have an impact on Earth. In the past, such outbursts have triggered solar storms with the ability to disrupt utility grids, airline flights, satellite networks and global positioning system services. They are also known to produce shimmering auroras in places farther from the poles.

Since Mars lacks a planet-wide magnetic field, it does not experience geomagnetic storms. Rather, the planet sees a spike in radiation, Rutledge said.

Powerful solar blasts can cause trouble to Mars spacecraft. In 2003, an intense solar flare knocked out the radiation detector on the Odyssey orbiter.

The unsettled space weather comes as Curiosity is recovering from a memory hiccup that put its science experiments on hold. It was the first major problem to hit the car-sized rover since it landed last year in an ancient crater near the Martian equator to hunt for the chemical building blocks of life.

Engineers were in the middle of troubleshooting when they decided to wait for the weather to pass.

Since its instruments are turned off, it cannot use its radiation sensor to track the solar particles.

“It’s just bad timing,” Cook said.

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