NASA is about to cut communications with its Mars rovers and other robot explorers on the Red Planet. But don’t be alarmed – there is a good reason to move, and normal operations will soon be up and running again.
The downtime is necessary because the current orbits of Earth and Mars mean the two planets are on opposite sides of the sun, a situation that occurs every two years.
The positioning, known as solar conjunction, affects NASA’s communications signals and could interfere with commands to Perseverance, Ingenuity, Curiosity, the InSight lander, and three Mars orbiters. In the worst case scenario, corrupted orders could incapacitate the explorers.
However, the interruption in communication will only last a short time, from October 2nd to 16th.
This short animation shared by NASA also explains the situation …
We will no longer command our Mars missions for the next few weeks while Earth and Red Planet are on opposite sides of the sun. However, the robot researchers will stay busy collecting weather data, listening for marsquakes and more: https://t.co/d8OrX4JD4W pic.twitter.com/NH01Rd5GUe
– NASA Mars (@NASAMars) September 28, 2021
The rovers are given some relatively simple tasks to perform while out of contact with terrestrials so they don’t hang around and twirl their robotic thumbs. Any data they collect will be saved and beamed back to Earth once communications resume in mid-October.
According to NASA, during the break, every explorer will do the following:
• NASA’s Perseverance rover, which spectacularly reached the Red Planet in February 2021, will carry out weather measurements with its MEDA sensors (Mars Environmental Dynamics Analyzer), search for dust devils with its cameras, its RIMFAX (Radar Imager for Mars’ Subsurface Experiment) radar and records sounds with its microphones.
• The Ingenuity Mars helicopter, which arrived with Perseverance and quickly became the first aircraft to make a controlled powered flight on another planet, will remain at its current location 175 meters from Perseverance and will regularly report its status to the rover base.
• The Rover Curiosity, which reached Mars in 2012 and continues to explore the Martian surface, will carry out weather measurements with its REMS sensors (Rover Environmental Monitoring Station), with its RAD (Radiation Assessment Detector) and DAN (Dynamic Albedo of. Neutrons) and keep their cameras on the lookout for dust devils.
• The InSight stationary lander, which has been active since arriving in 2018, will continue to use its seismometer to measure tremors like the large one it only recently discovered.
• NASA’s three orbiters – Odyssey, Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and MAVEN – will continue to relay some data from the Agency’s surface missions to Earth, as well as collecting various scientific measurements.
NASA adds that the downtime gives the engineers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which oversees the Mars missions, an excellent opportunity to get some well-deserved rest for a few weeks. And when they return, there should be plenty of new data on the line as communications returns.