NASA’s MAVEN orbiter has a new job as a communication relay for Mars 2020

Since its launch in 2013, NASA’S Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) mission has been orbiting Mars and collecting readings from the planet’s atmosphere to learn about how it interacts with the sun and solar wind. But now the MAVEN orbiter is taking on a new job as a data relay satellite for the Mars 2020 mission.

Having gathered plenty of data in the four years that it has been in orbit, MAVEN has been re-purposed for the important task of letting the soon-to-be-launched Mars 2020 rover communicate with Earth. “The MAVEN spacecraft has done a phenomenal job teaching us how Mars lost its atmosphere and providing other important scientific insights on the evolution of the Martian climate,” Jim Watzin, director of NASA’s Mars Exploration Program, said in a statement. “Now we’re recruiting it to help NASA communicate with our forthcoming Mars rover and its successors.”

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This artist concept shows the MAVEN spacecraft and the limb of Mars. NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center

For its new job, the MAVEN needs to be closer to the planet than it was before, so it will be moving from an elliptical orbit with a maximum distance of 3,850 miles (6,200 kilometers) to a closer orbit of 2,800 miles (4,500 kilometers) from the surface. The previous orbit allowed MAVEN to come very close to the planet at certain times, performing a “deep dip” where it came within 78 miles (125 kilometers) of the surface to capture more detailed information about the atmosphere.

The new orbit is shorter, so MAVEN will orbit Mars 6.8 times per Earth day instead of 5.3 times as before. This means that scientists at home will be able to use the orbiter to communicate with the rover more frequently. In addition, because the orbiter is not moving so far away from Earth, it will be easier to communicate with as well. “It’s like using your cell phone,” Bruce Jakosky, MAVEN principal investigator from the University of Colorado, Boulder, explained. “The closer you are to a cell tower, the stronger your signal.”

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(left) Current MAVEN orbit around Mars. (center) Aerobraking process: MAVEN performs a series of “deep dip” orbits approaching to within about 125 kilometers (~78 miles) of Mars at lowest altitude. (right) Post-aerobraking orbit, with reduced altitude and shorter orbit period. NASA’s Scientific Visualization Studio/Kel Elkins and Dan Gallagher

In order to get the orbiter to slow down and move into the new orbit, the NASA team will use a technique called aerobraking. The orbiter will perform similar deep dips to those done previously for research purposes, coming close to the planet’s surface. But this time the purpose of the dips is to use the atmosphere to slow the orbiter into its new path while using as little fuel as possible.

MAVEN should be in place in the next two and a half months, then it will be ready to send information between Earth and the Mars 2020 mission.

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