Martian spacecraft will get a temporary break from their normal work schedules when NASA pauses sending any commands from mission control during the upcoming Mars solar conjunction.
Every two years, Mars and Earth find themselves on opposite sides of the Sun, completely invisible to each other because a glowing star spewing plumes of hot, ionized gas happens to be in the way. There’s no point trying to coordinate complex science operations during this stage, so NASA isn’t going to be uploading new commands to its numerous Martian rovers, landers, or orbiters from about October 2 until October 16.
For example, the Perseverance, Curiosity, and InSight vehicles won’t be sending any raw images from their cameras back to Earth during the communications downtime. The Ingenuity drone will stop flying and rest on the ground 575 feet (175 metres) away from its handler Perseverance, although it will still send weekly status reports to the trundlebot that can be relayed back to Earth later.
“Though our Mars missions won’t be as active these next few weeks, they’ll still let us know their state of health,” said Roy Gladden, manager of the Mars Relay Network at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory this week. “Each mission has been given some homework to do until they hear from us again.”
Curiosity and Perseverance have been instructed to track weather conditions on Mars. Their sensors are to record signs of so-called “dust devils” – sweeping whirlwinds of Martian regolith kicked up by the planet’s winds.
Perseverance will also be listening to the phenomena with its microphones. The three orbiters – Odyssey, Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, and MAVEN – will transmit less data back to Earth and continue monitoring the Red Planet’s surface from afar where possible.
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Although work may seem a little more quiet for NASA engineers and scientists, they won’t get to sit back and relax for long. As soon as Earth gets a better line-of-sight to Mars as the conjunction passes, they’ll be bombarded with all the data the spacecraft stored and beamed to the Deep Space Network – an array of radio antennas on terra firma managed by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
Staff will have to spend a week downloading and wading through the whole stream of information before normal spacecraft operations can be restarted. Any data corrupted during the conjunction will also have to be resent to Earth. ®