NASA's Mars Rovers are Taking a Vacation to Prevent 'Sun Corruption'

Pierre Vaugeois
Juillet 17, 2017

This diagram illustrates the positions of Mars, Earth and the sun during a period that occurs approximately every 26 months, when Mars passes nearly directly behind the sun from Earth's perspective. It'll happen in 2017 on July 27. For a few weeks this summer, the sun will be nearly directly between Earth and Mars, impeding NASA's ability to communicate with its orbiters and rovers over at the red planet.

This alignment occurs every 26 months.

Even though this time the Sun won't be blocking our view of Mars in full, the data would still have a rough time getting to the planet next door, because the corona - scorching ionised gasses emitted from the star's surface - is enough to scramble transmissions.

Such interference can cause commands uploaded to rovers and orbiters to become corrupted, potentially harming the vehicles if carried out.

"Out of caution, we won't talk to our Mars assets during that period because we expect significant degradation in the communication link, and we don't want to take a chance that one of our spacecraft would act on a corrupted command", explained Chad Edwards, who manages the Mars Relay Network Office at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in California. That's the very reason why NASA imposes a moratorium on communications between Mars orbiters and rovers and the Earthbound teams that operate them.

This month's Mars solar conjunction will mark the eighth such period for the Mars Odyssey orbiter, and the seventh for the agency's Opportunity rover.

In most cases the communication between the mars and the earth via the spacecraft revolving around the sun is interfered during the eclipse (total solar eclipse).

Rovers Opportunity and Curiosity will remain stationary during this time although they will continue to conduct observations and collect data.

Their mission teams have spent the last few weeks searching for ideal sites where they can stay parked while continuing science operations.

With a solar conjunction coming soon, NASA is all set to take a break from Mars Rovers to avoid any kind of sun corruption during the time.

"Orbiters will be making their science observations and transmitting data". But there may be some loss of data due to the solar conjunction, and with that in mind, the data will be retransmitted at a later date for the sake of clarity and accuracy.

"We will continue to receive telemetry, so we will have information every day about the status of the vehicles", Mr Edwards said. She studied journalism at Douglass College, Rutgers University, and earned a Graduate Certificate of Science in astronomy from Swinburne University's Astronomy Online program.

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