NASA’s Martian Missions: NASA Martian Missions, clockwise from top left: Perseverance rover and Ingenuity Mars Helicopter, InSight lander, Odyssey orbiter, MAVEN orbiter, Curiosity rover, and Mars Reconnaissance orbiter. Credits: NASA / JPL-Caltech. Download image ›
The missions will continue to collect data on the Red Planet, although returning engineers will stop sending them commands until mid-October.
NASA will step down from command of its missions to Mars in the coming weeks as Earth and the Red Planet are on either side of the Sun. This period, called the Martian solar conjunction, takes place every two years.
The Sun expels hot, ionized gas from its corona, which stretches far out into space. During the solar conjunction, when Earth and Mars cannot “see each other,” this gas can interfere with radio signals if engineers attempt to communicate with the spacecraft on Mars. Doing so could corrupt the controls and lead to unexpected behavior from our deep space explorers.
To be on the safe side, NASA engineers send the spacecraft from Mars a list of simple commands to run for a few weeks. This year, most missions will stop sending orders between October 2 and October 16. A few extend this moratorium, as it is called, by a day or two in either direction, depending on the angular distance between Mars and the Sun in the Earth’s sky. .
“Although our missions to Mars will not be as active in the coming weeks, they will still inform us of their state of health,” said Roy Gladden, head of the Mars Relay Network at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California. . “Each mission was given homework to do until they heard from us again. “
Here’s how some of those missions to Mars will spend that time:
- Perseverance will take meteorological measurements with its MEDA (short for Mars Environmental Dynamics Analyzer) sensors, will search for dust devils with its cameras (although it will not move its mast, or “head”), will run its RIMFAX (Radar Imager for Mars’ Subsurface Experiment) and capture new sounds with its microphones.
- The Ingenuity Mars helicopter will remain stationary at its location 575 feet (175 meters) from Perseverance and communicate its status weekly to the rover.
- The Curiosity rover will perform meteorological measurements using its REMS (Rover Environmental Monitoring Station) sensors, perform radiation measurements with its RAD (Radiation Assessment Detector) and DAN (Dynamic Albedo of Neutrons) sensors, and search for devils of dust with its suite of cameras.
- The InSight stationary lander will continue to use its seismometer to detect tremors like the large earthquakes it recently captured.
- NASA’s three orbiters – Odyssey, Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and MAVEN – will all continue to relay some data from the agency’s surface missions to Earth, in addition to gathering their own science.
While a limited amount of scientific data will reach Earth during the conjunction, the spacecraft will retain most of it until after the moratorium. (This means there will be a temporary pause in the flow of raw images available from Perseverance, Curiosity, and InSight.)
Then, they’ll transmit their remaining data to NASA’s Deep Space Network, a massive Earth-based radio antenna system run by JPL. Engineers will spend about a week downloading the information before normal spacecraft operations resume. If the teams monitoring these missions determine that any of the scientific data collected has been corrupted, they can usually have that data retransmitted.
To learn more about NASA’s missions to Mars, visit:
Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California