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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.

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Trevor Mogg
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