Robotic exploration on Mars has hit a major obstacle as communication with space agencies on Earth has been disrupted. Due to the Mars solar conjunction, NASA mission controllers will not send any commands to their fleet of orbiters and rovers, including the famous Perseverance and Curiosity, for the next 10 days.
This natural phenomenon occurs every two years when Mars and Earth are positioned unfavorably on opposite sides of the sun during their respective orbits. The result is a period of about two weeks where the radio signals used by NASA to communicate with its Martian robotic explorers are disrupted by the energetic gas emitted by the sun’s outer atmosphere.
Engineers cannot risk sending commands to the spacecraft during this time, as the messages could be corrupted and endanger the rovers or orbiters. To minimize these risks, a planned communications blackout is in effect until November 25, with complete blackout expected for a few days. However, regular health updates from the spacecraft are still anticipated.
While this may seem like a break for the mission teams, the work does not come to a complete halt. The robotic fleet will continue operating on autopilot, albeit without the close supervision they usually receive. Months of preparation have gone into creating detailed to-do lists for each spacecraft.
During this period, the Curiosity rover and Perseverance rover will focus on their assigned tasks, such as monitoring Martian weather, surface conditions, radiation, and conducting surveys of rocks and dust devils. The Ingenuity helicopter, which has served as Perseverance’s aerial scout, will also remain grounded, using its color camera to study the movement of sand.
While the conjunction poses challenges, the Mars Reconnaissance and Odyssey orbiters will continue capturing images of the planet’s surface, and MAVEN will monitor the interactions between the sun and the Martian atmosphere.
Once the Mars solar conjunction period concludes, the collected data will be shared, and the Mars missions and their teams will resume their normal work of exploring the red planet.
Frequently Asked Questions
What is Mars solar conjunction?
Mars solar conjunction is a phenomenon that occurs every two years when Mars and Earth are positioned on opposite sides of the sun during their orbits. During this time, communications between space agencies on Earth and the robotic explorers on Mars are disrupted due to interference from the sun’s energetic gas.
Why is communication disrupted during Mars solar conjunction?
The hot, energized gas emitted by the sun’s outer atmosphere interferes with the radio signals used to communicate with the Martian spacecraft. This can corrupt the messages and potentially endanger the rovers or orbiters.
What happens to the robotic explorers during this period?
During Mars solar conjunction, the robotic fleet continues to operate on autopilot. They follow pre-programmed commands and conduct tasks assigned to them prior to the blackout. Mission teams remotely monitor the health of the spacecraft but do not send any new commands during this time.
How long does Mars solar conjunction last?
Mars solar conjunction typically lasts for about two weeks. However, the planned communications blackout extends for a longer period to ensure the uninterrupted operation and safety of the spacecraft.