NASA’s Mars missions, led by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Southern California, are temporarily halting operations as solar conjunction approaches. This celestial phenomenon occurs approximately every two years when the sun aligns between Earth and Mars, interrupting communications between the two planets.
During this period, which lasts for a few weeks, the orbits of Earth and Mars obscure direct line-of-sight communication. The mission team must cease sending commands and receiving data from the Martian robots until the planets are once again in sight of each other. This downtime, as NASA explains, is necessary to ensure the integrity of communications and protect the rovers and orbiters from potential damage caused by charged particles emanating from the sun.
The robots affected by this temporary communication blackout include the Perseverance rover, which successfully landed on Mars in 2021, and the Curiosity rover, which touched down on the Martian surface in 2012. Additionally, NASA’s three orbiters—Odyssey, Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, and MAVEN—will experience interrupted operations during this period.
While unable to transmit data to Earth, the Mars robots will continue to perform various scientific tasks autonomously. For instance, the Perseverance rover will continue monitoring weather patterns and radiation levels. Similarly, the Curiosity rover will continue its exploration and investigation of the Martian landscape. The Mars helicopter, Ingenuity, will also take a break before receiving its next flight plan, which will be delivered via its companion, the Perseverance rover.
During the previous solar conjunction in 2021, NASA released an animation to illustrate the significance of the event. It emphasized the potential disruption caused by charged particles from the sun and the risks they pose to the communication between Earth and Mars.
Although the communication hiatus presents a temporary challenge for NASA’s Mars missions, it also offers an opportunity for the JPL team to catch up on other work or even take some well-deserved time off.
1. What is solar conjunction?
Solar conjunction is a celestial event that occurs when the sun aligns between Earth and Mars, temporarily interrupting direct communications between the two planets.
2. How long does solar conjunction last?
Solar conjunction typically lasts for a few weeks, during which the orbits of Earth and Mars obscure the direct line-of-sight communication.
3. Which Mars robots are affected by solar conjunction?
The Mars robots affected by solar conjunction include the Perseverance rover, the Curiosity rover, and NASA’s three orbiters—Odyssey, Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, and MAVEN.
4. What tasks will the Mars robots continue to perform during solar conjunction?
Despite the communication blackout, the Mars robots will continue their scientific tasks autonomously, such as collecting weather data, monitoring radiation levels, and exploring the Martian landscape.
5. Are there any risks to the Mars robots during solar conjunction?
Charged particles from the sun pose a potential risk to the rovers and orbiters during solar conjunction. To protect them from potential damage, NASA temporarily halts commanding the robots and receiving data from them.