Skip to main content

Why NASA is about to cut contact with its Mars explorers

NASA is about to cut communications with its Mars rovers and other robotic explorers on the red planet. But don’t be alarmed — there’s a good reason for the move and normal operations will resume soon.

The downtime is necessary as the current orbits of Earth and Mars mean the two planets are on opposite sides of the sun, a situation that occurs once every two years.

The positioning, known as solar conjunction, affects NASA’s communications signals and could disrupt commands sent to Perseverance, Ingenuity, Curiosity, the InSight lander, and three Mars orbiters. In a worst-case scenario, corrupted commands could knock the explorers out of action.

But the shutdown of communications will only last a short while, from October 2 through October 16.

This short animation shared by NASA also explains the situation …

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

The rovers are being given some relatively simple tasks to carry out while they’re out of touch with earthlings, so they won’t be hanging around twiddling their robotic thumbs. Any data they gather will be stored and beamed back to Earth once communications resume in mid-October.

Here’s what each explorer will be getting up to during the break, according to NASA:

  • NASA’s Perseverance rover, which arrived on the red planet in spectacular fashion in February 2021, will take weather measurements with its MEDA (Mars Environmental Dynamics Analyzer) sensors, search for dust devils with its cameras, run its RIMFAX (Radar Imager for Mars’ Subsurface Experiment) radar, and record sounds with its microphones.
  • The Ingenuity Mars helicopter, which arrived with Perseverance and quickly became the first aircraft to achieve controlled, powered flight on another planet, will remain at its current location 575 feet (175 meters) from Perseverance and communicate its status to the rover on a regular basis.
  • The Curiosity rover, which reached Mars in 2012 and continues to explore the Martian surface, will take weather measurements using its REMS (Rover Environmental Monitoring Station) sensors, take radiation measurements with its RAD (Radiation Assessment Detector) and DAN (Dynamic Albedo of Neutrons) sensors, and use its cameras to look out for dust devils.
  • The stationary InSight lander, active since its arrival in 2018, will continue using its seismometer to measure quakes like the big one it detected just recently.
  • NASA’s three orbiters — Odyssey, Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, and MAVEN — will continue relaying some data to Earth from the agency’s surface missions, and also collect various scientific measurements.

NASA adds that the downtime gives engineers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which oversees the Mars missions, an excellent opportunity to take a well-earned rest for a few weeks. And when they return, there should be plenty of fresh data coming down the line as communications return.

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 new interactive mosaic shows Mars in amazing detail
A section of NASA's incredibly detailed mosaic of Mars.

NASA has launched a new interactive tool that shows Mars in extraordinary detail and lets you travel between points of interest at the click of a mouse.

The extraordinary Global CTX Mosaic of Mars comprises 110,000 images captured by the Context Camera -- or CTX -- aboard NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO).

Read more
NASA’s Ingenuity helicopter sets two flight records on Mars
NASA's Ingenuity helicopter.

NASA’s Mars helicopter, Ingenuity, set two flight records on its most recent flight.

Taking to the Martian skies on Sunday, April 2, Ingenuity buzzed along at a record speed of 6.5 meters per second (15 mph), comfortably beating its previous record of 6 meters per second (13 mph) set in February.

Read more
Perseverance rover collects its first sample from Jezero delta
This image shows the rocky outcrop the Perseverance science team calls Berea after the NASA Mars rover extracted a rock core and abraded a circular patch. The image was taken by the rover's Mastcam-Z instrument on March 30, 2023.

Things are heating up on Mars, as the Perseverance rover begins its new science campaign. In its previous science campaign, the NASA rover explored the floor of the Jezero crater, but now it has moved on to investigate an exciting location called the delta. As the site of an ancient river delta, this region is a great location to search for evidence of ancient life and to find rocks carried from far-off locations by the river that was there millions of years ago.

Perseverance collected its first sample of this science campaign last week, on Thursday, March 30. This is the 19th sample of rock and dust that the rover has collected so far, with 10 of those samples carefully left behind in a sample cache on the Martian surface. The latest sample was collected from a rock named "Berea" which is thought to be made up of deposits that were carried by the river.

Read more