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1 March 2013

Computers don't last forever. In fact, chances are that the average desktop PC will fail within a few years of its purchase -- that's just the nature of the beast.

Today's computers are made to a price and still contain spinny, whirly, moving bits such as disk-drives which, unfortunately, eventually wear out.

Even computers which have SSDs are not immune to hardware failure and we all accept that one day something will go wrong - leaving us disconnected and frustrated.

When this happens to you or I, some of us will be clever enough to do some rudimentary fault-finding and locate the fault to a specific subsystem such as the drive, motherboard, power-supply or peripheral. Others will simply "take it to the shop" for repair.

But what happens when a trip to the local PC repair shop is impractical?

What can you do when the computer concerned is actually on the surface of Mars?

Well this is exactly the problem NASA is facing right now with the Curiosity rover.

Apparently the rover's primary computer has had a bit of a spaz-attack due to some corrupted memory and now they're running on the backup system.

Yes, of course they have a backup. You don't spend that much money building a machine that will be dumped on a far-away alien world without building in a fair level of redundancy!

So far, all has been going very well with the Curiosity rover -- until a few days ago, the regularly scheduled data upload failed to take place. On closer inspection it was found that a critical segment of memory on the primary computer had been corrupted so NASA switched to the backup until a full investigation could be performed.

Detailed information is a bit sparse right now but apparently it would only take a single flipped-bit on the computer's memory to trigger a corruption (parity?) error so some are suggesting that a single cosmic ray may have been the cause. Whether this is a permanent error or one that can be fixed by a reformat of the device concerned has not been disclosed.

I suspect that this hiccup comes as a nasty surprise for the guys at NASA, especially in light of the other two rovers' unbelievably long operational lifetime -- far, far beyond that for which they were designed.

The best and brightest minds at NASA will now be furiously working to run diagnostics and see if they can come up with a repair or work-around for the primary computer although I'm pretty sure that now *it* will be relegated to the role of backup, for fear the fault may resurface even if it is fixed. No Indian call-center-based help desk is going to fix this problem!

It would be a huge shame if, after all that expenditure, hard work and success to date, the Curiosity rover ended up being mortally wounded by bad luck -- just as it starts to unravel more of the red planet's mysteries.

Hmmm... cosmic rays eh?

Where's my tinfoil hat?

Imagine the damage a flipped neuron could cause!

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