NASA Missions Face Triple Whammy Of Glitches - InformationWeek

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3/1/2013
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NASA Missions Face Triple Whammy Of Glitches

Space station resupply mission, the Mars Curiosity rover, and the International Space Station itself all have had problems in the last few weeks.

NASA Mars Mission: No Little Green Men -- Yet
NASA Mars Mission: No Little Green Men -- Yet
(click image for larger view and for slideshow)
An unmanned resupply mission to the International Space Station experienced a thruster problem on Friday morning, only a day after NASA announced computer glitches with the Mars Curiosity Rover and less than two weeks after a space station communications hiccup.

Shortly after entering orbit subsequent to an on-time liftoff this morning from Cape Canaveral, private spaceflight company SpaceX CEO Elon Musk tweeted that his NASA-funded resupply mission to the International Space Station had trouble initiating three of its four thruster pods, which delayed deployment of the Dragon spacecraft's solar arrays.

Mission controllers eventually were able to deploy the solar panels on two thruster pods, but as of 2:30 p.m. Eastern, Musk still had not reported that the other thruster pods had come online. The cargo is scheduled to reach the space station on Saturday.

The SpaceX mission to the International Space Station is the second of 12 missions as part of a $1.6 billion contract with NASA. The first mission was five months ago. This flight's cargo includes materials for scientific experiments, food, computer parts and equipment for air purifiers.

[ Satellites the size of softballs? Read NASA To Send Cube Satellites Into Space. ]

Just yesterday, NASA reported that the Mars Curiosity rover had switched to a backup computer after the rover's primary computer had failed to fall asleep as planned. NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory credited the problem to corrupt flash memory.

The backup computer on Curiosity, known as the B-side computer, actually acted as the primary computer on the way from Earth to Mars, while the other, A-side computer, has been operating Curiosity since the rover's August 2012 landing.

After switching to the backup computer, NASA put the rover into "safe mode" for a few days, during which time the space agency will troubleshoot the problem and the rover's scientific instruments will remain idle. Curiosity, which is looking for signs of Mars' habitability, had recently begun investigating the first sample of rock powder collected from underneath Mars' surface.

These back-to-back glitches themselves come on the heels of a three-hour communications lapse between mission control and the International Space Station on Feb. 19 when a data relay system malfunctioned during a routine flight computer update.

In that instance, the computer controlling critical station functions faulted over to a backup, and the space station continued operating as normal, albeit without communication with operators on the ground. Astronauts were able to make brief contact during the outage via radio.

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