While the Juno spacecraft grabbed all the headlines as it approached Jupiter and the US celebrated the July 4 weekend, another NASA mission wasn't faring so well.

On July 2, Mars rover Curiosity ceased science operations on the slopes of Mount Sharp after a fail safe was tripped, forcing the nuclear-powered robot into a low-power "safe mode."

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According to a NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory report, preliminary information communicated by Curiosity suggests an "unexpected mismatch between camera software and data-processing software in the main computer" may have been the culprit and the rover's automated systems took over, preventing any permanent damage from being caused.

Interestingly, Curiosity has gone for a long period without experiencing an unexpected safe mode on the Martian surface. In 2013, the rover experience three separate safe mode events, but none since. It did, however, experience an electrical short in 2015 that forced a pause in science activities.

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Safe modes are built into all complex space missions that will be automatically triggered should an unexpected systems error arise. Often, safe modes are triggered when a surge in power is detected or an erroneous command is triggered after a cosmic ray impact on internal electronics. In case this is indicative of a bigger fault, a safe mode will be triggered to prevent further damage from occurring while ground controllers can remotely work through the problem.

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Roving companion Opportunity has suffered many safe modes in its 12 years roving Mars, especially now its on board memory is literally wearing out, causing system instabilities and bouts of "amnesia". Built-in fail safes in Opportunity's software have allowed mission engineers to extend the rover's lifespan well beyond its primary mission of only 3 months.

Though obviously a concern, Curiosity is doing exactly what it is designed to do and it is still communicating with Earth while mission engineers get it back to carrying out ground-breaking science in the middle of Gale Crater.

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