Curiosity Hunkers Down While Solar Blast Races Toward Mars

Trouble comes on the heels of the rover's recovery from a computer glitch.

Just days after waking up from a self-imposed safe mode, the Mars rover Curiosity is getting some extra shuteye as it waits for a solar storm to calm down. On Tuesday, a huge solar flare erupted from the sun’s far side as viewed from Earth. But it was right toward Mars, and it also hurled a cloud of superheated gas toward the Red Planet.

Mars doesn’t have a magnetic field like Earth’s, so any spacecraft (or future people) hanging out on the surface will be exposed to this solar radiation. In 2003, the long-running Odyssey orbiter lost its radiation detector after a solar blast.

This particular eruption was pretty ordinary, just a run-of-the-mill 2 million degree explosion. NASA is not anticipating any major problems, but the scientists working with Curiosity and its cousin, Opportunity, are stopping science operations just to be safe.

That means Curiosity can’t continue analyzing the tablespoon of pulverized rock it drilled a couple weeks ago. It also means the rover’s radiation detector is shut off, the AP noted. “It’s just bad timing,” project manager Richard Cook told AP.

The sun is extra active at this stage in its 11-year cycle, so more blasts are certainly possible in the coming months. Keep an eye on the Solar Dynamics Observatory for some great views.

A Rover In Full