Skip to main content

NASA stops speaking to its Mars robots, but they haven’t fallen out

NASA’s Mars robots receive their commands from the mission team at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California, but for the next few weeks, communications will fall silent.

This is due to that massive fireball in the sky — aka the sun — coming between Earth and Mars. The celestial event is known as solar conjunction and happens every couple of years.

The orbits of Earth and Mars mean that the two planets will once again be in sight of each other from November 25, allowing the mission team to resume normal operations.

Affected robots include the Perseverance rover, which reached the Martian surface in 2021, and the Curiosity rover, which landed in 2012. NASA’s three orbiters — Odyssey, Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, and MAVEN — are affected, too.

NASA’s Mars helicopter, Ingenuity, will also take a well-earned break before receiving its next flight plan, delivered via its travel partner, Perseverance.

Despite the break in communications, all of NASA’s vehicles will continue to gather data — Perseverance, for example, will monitor weather and radiation changes — but won’t beam any of it back to Earth until the solar conjunction has passed.

During the last solar conjunction in 2021, NASA released a short animation (below) to show exactly what’s happening. It explains that it could attempt to communicate with the robots during solar conjunction, but that charged particles from the sun could corrupt signals and, in a worst-case scenario, damage the rovers.

We'll stand down from commanding our Mars missions for the next few weeks while Earth and the Red Planet are on opposite sides of the Sun. The robotic explorers will stay busy though, collecting weather data, listening for marsquakes, and more:

— NASA Mars (@NASAMars) September 28, 2021

As NASA points out in its animation, the two weeks of downtime allows the team at JPL to catch up on other work or take a vacation.

Editors' Recommendations

Trevor Mogg
Contributing Editor
Not so many moons ago, Trevor moved from one tea-loving island nation that drives on the left (Britain) to another (Japan)…
NASA’s Mars rover marvels at ‘big chunky weirdo’
The Perseverance Mars rover took this selfie on Sept. 10, 2021 — sol 198 of the mission – in Jezero Crater after coring into a rock called ‘Rochette.’ Rock core samples from the floor of the crater will be brought back to Earth and analyzed to characterize the planet’s geology and past climate.

NASA’s Perseverance rover has been busy exploring Mars since landing there in spectacular fashion in February 2021.

The car-sized vehicle is equipped with a bunch of science tools and cameras to help it in its quest to find evidence of ancient microbial life on the distant planet. It’s also gathering together samples of Martian rock and soil for return to Earth in the ambitious Mars Sample Return mission. Additionally, the current mission offers an opportunity to test robotic technology that could be further developed for the first crewed mission to Mars.

Read more
NASA restores contact with Mars helicopter after nine weeks of silence
Mars helicopter

The last time NASA had contact with Ingenuity, the Mars helicopter was flying in the air on April 26.

Ten weeks on, the Mars team at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California has announced that it’s restored contact with the aircraft, and everything appears to be in order.

Read more
NASA lost contact with Mars Ingenuity helicopter for a week — but it’s OK now
NASA's Ingenuity helicopter.

NASA has announced that it recently lost contact with the Ingenuity helicopter on Mars for a week. Communications with the helicopter have now been restored, and it will continue exploring Mars's Jezero crater along with the Perseverance rover.

The Ingenuity helicopter has outlasted all expectations, originally designed to make just five flights but completing an incredible 51st flight in April. However, this extended lifespan means that the helicopter has run into problems, particularly when the Martian winter set in and it was difficult for its solar panels to generate enough heat to keep its electronics warm. This means that the helicopter must deal with occasional brownouts of power during the nighttime, which can affect the time at which the helicopter wakes up each morning.

Read more