NASA missions to Mars face a 2-week communications blackout as the sun blocks the red planet

NASA plans to halt most of its robotic Mars exploration efforts in October for security reasons associated with the Red Planet’s position in space.

On October 7, Mars will reach a position in its orbit called the solar conjunction, which occurs every two years as the planet moves behind the sun from Earth’s perspective. The sun’s hot outer atmosphere, or corona, found in the line of sight, can disrupt interplanetary communications, NASA noted.

“That could corrupt the commands and result in unexpected behavior from our deep space explorers,” NASA said in a statement, referring to its three orbiters, two rovers, a lander and a helicopter operating from the Red Planet. . The solar conjunction will also affect other Mars missions from Europe, China and India, although those agencies have not yet detailed their plans for the conjunction period.

Related: China’s Zhurong Mars rover returns panorama ahead of planetary blackout

Most NASA missions will stop sending raw commands and images between Oct. 2-16, though the timing will vary by a day or two in some cases, the agency said. Meanwhile, NASA said it will assign its various robots “tasks” that they can safely perform on their own while communications are down.

● NASA’s Perseverance rover, which landed in February, will take weather measurements, look for passing dust swirls (without moving its cameras), run radar experiments, and listen to ambient sounds with its microphone. Perseverance’s Twitter account recently said that the rover is looking for a good “parking spot” to await the dark period of communications, but added that there are many options to choose from. On Tuesday (September 28), Perseverance’s Twitter said it was ready. “I am parked in an ideal spot between dunes and a rocky outcrop,” the rover’s account tweeted.

● The Ingenuity Mars helicopter has been making long and daring flights in recent weeks, though that work is on hiatus as NASA figures out how to fly safely during the normal seasonal thinning of the Martian atmosphere. The agency has not disclosed the date of the next flight and Ingenuity may await the communications hiatus, as NASA said the helicopter will remain parked 175 meters (575 feet) from Perseverance and send weekly status updates to the rover.

● The Curiosity rover, which has been working on Mars since 2012, will take measurements of climate and radiation, and will also watch for dust swirls. The mission is a veteran of several past solar conjunctions and has not faced any major problems.

● The InSight lander, which is stationary, will run a passive experiment: its seismometer will be operational to continue searching for large tidal waves.

● NASA’s three long-duration orbiters, all veterans of past conjunctions: Odyssey, Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) and Mars Atmosphere and Vollatile Evolution Mission (MAVEN), will send status updates from Martian surface missions back to Earth. Land. They will also make scientific observations on their own, to send them back to Earth when the planetary alignment is most favorable.

This diagram shows the relative positions of Mars, Earth, and the sun during a period that occurs approximately every 26 months, when Mars passes almost directly behind the sun from Earth’s perspective. (Image credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech)

Once the solar conjunction passes, engineers plan to download the information for about a week using NASA’s Deep Space Network, a system of radio antennas on Earth that listen to missions in deep space.

“If the teams monitoring these missions determine that some of the collected scientific data has been corrupted, they can generally relay that data,” NASA said in the statement. Normal spacecraft operations will reoccur once the data collection process is complete.

Follow Elizabeth Howell on Twitter @howellspace. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom and on Facebook.

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