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Massive solar flare heads towards Mars; NASA prepares rover for wild ride

A massive coronal mass ejection (CME) has put NASA’s Curiosity rover in a direct line of fire that could lead to further complications, according to the space agency.

The U.S. space agency warned that it has ordered the rover into “sleep mode,” part of an effort to protect the rover’s computer equipment from the barrage of radiation expected to inundate the Red Planet later this week.

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

While Curiosity rides out the massive solar storm, NASA says it will continue operating its Opportunity rover and a pair of NASA orbiters.

The decision comes just days after NASA noticed a massive CME  launched in the direction of Mars. The agency noted that solar burst ejected a large jet of superheated gas aimed towards Mars at 2 million mph. According to the space agency, the radiation from CMEs often does not present problems for spacecraft and rovers, but engineers are not taking any chances. In 2003, an intense solar flare knocked out the radiation detector on the Odyssey orbiter. During Curiosity’s trip to Mars in August 2012, the rover encountered a similar barrage of particles a CME sent out an M1 class solar flare that nailed the NASA’s Solar-Terrestrial Relations Observatory spacecraft, the Spitzer space telescope, and the rover.

A strong CME may contain around a billion tons of plasma moving at up to a million miles per hour in a cloud many times the size of Earth.  In addition to bombarding planets with charged particles, the CME would lead to atmospheric loss for planets like Mars that are unprotected by a global magnetic field, NASA stated.

Officials say they plan to closely monitor the CME’s approach to Mars, adding that little can be done to protect the rover if the collection of charged particles is large enough to knock the rover’s computer system out.

The announcement comes as NASA has spent much of the week programming in changes to Curiosity’s computer system. The rover experienced a series of computer malfunctions over the week, forcing NASA engineers to activate a back-up system that allowed them to make the necessary changes to get the rover rolling again. The problem arose in late February when Curiosity’s A-side computer began showing signs of a corrupted memory location. NASA controllers later determined that exposure to radiation was behind the file corruption. In a statement released earlier this week, officials say they expect the rover to begin operating at full capacity later this week, although that schedule is expected to be pushed back.