When Computers Give Attitude: How Engineers Saved Curiosity From Complete Uselessness

AI is one of those really touchy subjects – People either love it or they’re worried that eventually the robots will snap and we’ll all be forced to live in a people zoo for their entertainment while they take over the world. Either way, you can’t disagree that computers definitely have a place in society. One of those places is space exploration. Without rovers, probes, and the like we wouldn’t even know half of what we’ve discovered about our galaxy. Thing is, with the actual computer being so far away it’s a little harder to diagnose and fix any issues that come up.

This is exactly what happened with Curiosity, the rover that’s mainly responsible for our knowledge of Mars. After decades worth of other rovers and probes gathered what they could, scientists came up with high-tech Curiosity – It can scoop up dirt, drill into rocks, and carries a bunch of other stuff that allows us to learn a lot more than just pictures do. Curiosity landed in August of 2012 and has been up there learning for us ever since. But it almost didn’t go like that at all…

Since Curiosity has a lot to process (processing data, basic housekeeping, analysis, event reports, etc.), there are actually two ‘computer brains’ installed on it to ensure that no matter what, it’s able to do and  about six months into Curiosity’s mission, one of those brains decided that it was going to start being uncooperative – When engineers told it that it was time to take a nap, it refused to take a nap; when they asked it to take pictures, it said that it had no interest in doing such things; when they asked it to do other science stuff, it decided that it couldn’t be bothered.

Since the rover isn’t within visiting distance, a manual reboot was out of the question. Scientists decided that there was only one thing left to do – They had to kill the first computer in hopes that the second one would suddenly come alive. A pretty risky move when you think about it – Either it was going to work or it was going to end up a dead computer, destined to hang out on a planet that we still haven’t managed to visit until whenever we end up getting there. Since the mission cost nearly $2.5 billion dollars, the latter option certainly wasn’t ideal and would have made it a lot harder to convince people that their money should continue going to this sort of thing.

They killed the pilot and waited anxiously

After shutting down the pilot and sending a message to the co-pilot to wake up, all everyone could do was wait. Four minutes of silence go by and people start getting worried. Just as some scientists began to realize that maybe that was the end of Mars exploration, the co-pilot jolted awake and started buzzing away happily. The co-pilot was happy to do exactly what engineers were asking of it, and it’s been running the show ever since. Even today, it’s the one up there making sure that we have pictures and data to learn from. Pilot’s issues were resolved and it’s now a backup, just in case.

Would you visit Mars if the trip ever became available? Let us know below.

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Written by Shanda de Vries


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