Mars communication blackout period with rovers and spacecraft nears its end

NASA is anxiously awaiting the return of communication with Martian rovers and spacecraft after ceasing all communications on October 2.

This agency-set blackout period came as Mars and Earth entered solar conjunction – when two planets are on complete opposite sides of the Sun. For Earth and Mars, this happens every two years.

The Sun is continuously emitting waves of hot ionized gas which extend far into space. During solar conjunction, when our planet doesn’t have a direct line of sight to Mars, this gas can interfere with radio signals used to communicate with rovers and spacecraft. This interference can lead to corrupted commands, resulting in unexpected behavior from our Martian explorers.

Mars solar conjunction, a period when Mars is on the opposite side of the Sun from Earth. During this time, the Sun can interrupt radio transmissions to spacecraft on and around the Red Planet.
Credit: NASA

To be on the safe side, before the beginning of the Mars solar conjunction, NASA engineers sent two weeks of instructions for spacecraft and ground robots to carry out between October 2 and October 16. These commands included assigning much simpler “to-do” lists so they can still conduct some science and store any data locally.

“Though our Mars missions won’t be as active these next few weeks, they’ll still let us know their state of health,” said Roy Gladden, manager of the Mars Relay Network at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California. “Each mission has been given some homework to do until they hear from us again.”

On the surface of the Red Planet, all rovers have stopped driving, while the Ingenuity Mars Helicopter remains stationary and communicates its status to Perseverance weekly. Perseverance rover, along with Curiosity, is only taking weather measurements, radiation assessments, searching for and capturing images of dust devils, and some other auxiliary tasks. Lastly, InSight lander is letting its robotic-arm rest, as it solely focuses on detecting and recording marsquakes – the largest of which was just recorded in September of this year.

While that may seem risky, automatic pilot has come a long way. Engineers have become skilled at letting spacecraft be on their own. Like parents who raise youngsters to be responsible and let them go on a short vacation with their friends, they’ve done all they can to ensure the voyagers will be healthy and safe. Before solar conjunction, the mission team sends up any necessary commands. Many then consider it an opportune time to take a few, well-deserved vacation days.

Once the conjunction is over, spacecraft will beam all the collected data to NASA’s Deep Space Network, an international collection of massive Earth-based radio antennas managed by JPL. Engineers will spend about a week downloading all the information before normal operations resume. While NASA states that the two weeks of pre-instructions end on October 17, it may not be until the end of October we see every Mars mission fully resume.

Featured image credit: NASA/ESO/M.Kornmesser (Rendered image of Mars)

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