NASA tries long-distance repair of Mars orbiter

Problem means NASA is out of communication with rovers Curiosity and Opportunity

NASA scientists are working to bring the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, which has been orbiting the Red Planet for eight years, back online after the spacecraft suffered a glitch Sunday.

The orbiter put itself into safe mode and swapped from its main computer to a backup, NASA said.

"The spacecraft is healthy, in communication and fully powered," said Dan Johnston, NASA's project manager for the orbiter. "We have stepped up the communication data rate, and we plan to have the spacecraft back to full operations within a few days."

The orbiter is one of several NASA robotic machines that is studying the Red Planet. The spacecraft has been working in conjunction with the Mars rovers Curiosity and Opportunity, and another orbiter, the Odyssey.

In addition to studying Mars, the Reconnaissance orbiter relays data and images from Curiosity and Opportunity back to Earth, and relays commands from Earth to the rovers.

Sunday's glitch has kept NASA from receiving nformation about the movements of the two rovers. Scientists also have been unable to send new commands to the rovers.

This isn't the first time the orbiter has put itself into safe mode. NASA reported that this has happened four other times in the spacecraft's eight years in the Mars orbit. The last time it happened was in November 2011.

NASA's tech team never discovered what problem sent the orbiter into safe mode on the other occasions.

This time, though, the orbiter went into safe mode after switching from a main radio transponder to a backup. The transponder is used to gather signals from the rovers and send those signals back to Earth.

According to NASA, scientists won't try to switch the orbiter back to the main transponder but will try to figure out why it made the switch.

The Reconnaissance orbiter began its work in March 2006 and completed a two-year mission. It is now on its third extension.

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