It’s been an eventful week for Mars-related activities. After suffering a software reset on November 7th, as reported on in my last MSL update, the rover Curiosity experienced a second problem on November 17th.
This was caused by an unexpected voltage change being detected in the vehicle, described as a “soft” short, meaning that electricity is unexpectedly passing through something that is partially conductive, and in difference to a “hard” short, such as one electrical wire contacting another.
The short was first noted as a voltage difference between the chassis and the 32-volt power bus that distributes electricity to systems throughout the rover. Data indicating the change were received on Sunday November 17th, Curiosity’s 456th Martian day. Prior to the short occurring, the voltage level had been a consistent 11 volts; however, the data received indicated it has dropped to 4 volts.
While there was no immediate danger, as the rover’s electrical system is designed with the flexibility to work properly across a range of voltages – a design feature called “floating bus” – the decision was taken to suspend science operations while matters were investigated.
This was actually the second soft short Curiosity has experienced. The first occurred on the very day it arrived on Mars – August 5th/6th 2012 – when the bus-to-chassis voltage dropped from about 16 volts to about 11 volts. This was thought to be related to explosive-release devices used for deployments shortly before and after the landing, but did it not and has not interfered with the rover’s operational capacity or capabilities.
Although the voltage change did not pose any immediate threat, and the vehicle did not enter a safe mode status, nor was it related to the earlier software reset, such soft shorts can reduce the robustness of the rover’s electrical systems for tolerating other shorts in the future. Further, they can indicate a possible problem in whichever component is the site of the short. Hence the decision to suspend science operations and take time to check some of the possible root causes for the voltage change.
Subsequent analysis revealed that the voltage drop occurred intermittently three times in the hours before it became persistent. Some six days were spent in root cause analysis using data returned by the rover, which saw a number of potential causes suggested by mission engineers eliminated. This resulted in the most likely cause being identified as an internal short in Curiosity’s power source, the Multi-Mission Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator (MMRTG or RTG for short).
Due to resiliency in the RTG design, this type of short does not affect operation of the power source or the rover. In fact, similar generators on other spacecraft, including NASA’s Cassini at Saturn, have experienced shorts with no loss of capability, and testing of an Earth-based RTG over many years found no loss of capability despite the presence of these types of internal shorts.
As a result of these findings, the rover was commanded to re-start science activities on November 23rd, and data returned from Curiosity’s onboard monitoring systems indicated that voltage levels had successfully returned to levels prior to that of the November 17th incident, a sign which is again indicative of an internal short within the RTG systems.
The resumption of science activities was marked by the rover delivering a further sample of rock cutting gathered some 6 months ago from an outcrop dubbed “Cumberland” in the “Yellowknife Bay” area of Gale Crater. A number of samples from the outcrop have already been analysed by the Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) suite of instruments, which has the flexibility to be able to carry out such analyses a number of different ways, allowing significantly more data to be gathered on samples of the same rock gathered and stored by the rover.