A navigational glitch on NASA’s MAVEN Martian Orbiter halted its scientific work

A navigation system failure experienced by NASA’s MAVEN orbiter on Mars earlier this year has crippled the spacecraft’s ability to conduct scientific research and study the Red Planet’s atmosphere.

The MAVEN spacecraft, which has been orbiting Mars since 2014, entered a protective “safe mode” on February 2. 22 when its vital inertial measurement units “began to exhibit anomalous behavior,” NASA officials wrote in a May 18 update. While in safe mode, the spacecraft shuts down all science and waits for instructions from its flight controllers on how to recover.

In the weeks that followed, NASA managed to bring MAVEN out of safe mode, but with limited capabilities. The orbiter is in a stable orbit with its main antenna pointing towards Earth to maintain high speed communications with its mission control team.

“However, in this configuration, MAVEN is unable to relay communications to other spacecraft on Mars and only performs limited scientific observations,” NASA officials wrote in an update. (will open in a new tab). “The mission team began retrieving the scientific instruments on April 20.” The orbiter typically serves as a communications relay for NASA’s Curiosity and Perseverance rovers on Mars to relay the latest images and exploration results from the Martian surface to Earth.

Related: A Brief History of Missions to Mars

The MAVEN Inertial Measurement Unit (IMU) system is based on ring laser gyroscopes that detect the inertial motion of the spacecraft and four reaction wheels arranged in a four-sided pyramid that can rotate independently to position the orbiter in the desired orientation, according to a NASA press office. . installed (will open in a new tab). The orbiter is also equipped with two star tracking cameras that can take pictures of the stars and feed them into a star detection algorithm to help the spacecraft determine its orientation in space.

NASA officials said MAVEN was in safe mode until April 19, when flight controllers switched the spacecraft from the IMU to the star tracking system in what it called “all-star mode.”

“All MAVEN science instruments are currently online, but not all of them were able to receive data while the high-gain antenna is limited to pointing to Earth,” NASA officials wrote in an update. “The team is currently working to complete an ‘all-star’ test to allow the spacecraft to operate in other orientations before resuming nominal science and relay operations by the end of the month.”

NASA launched the MAVEN mission (short for Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN) in November 2013 and arrived on the Red Planet in October 2014. Her mission is to study how Mars lost its surface water and became the dusty red world we see. Today. Last month, NASA extended the MAVEN mission, which originally cost $671 million, for another three years to allow the orbiter to continue its scientific work.

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