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NASA Pauses Mars Missions To Avoid Interference

NASA will significantly scale back its Mars missions in April as the Red Planet moves behind the sun as viewed from Earth.

NASA Mars Mission: No Little Green Men -- Yet
NASA Mars Mission: No Little Green Men -- Yet
(click image for larger view and for slideshow)
In an effort to avoid problems caused by interference, NASA will temporarily limit scientific observations by its Mars rovers and orbiters beginning Thursday as the Red Planet passes behind the sun as seen from Earth.

The sun will appear between Earth and Mars throughout the month of April in a setup known as a Mars solar conjunction, which can interfere with communications between the two planets. Specifically, during these solar conjunctions, solar flares and charged particles being emitted from the sun can disrupt radio communications, and thus could interfere with the stream of data being sent back and forth to NASA's spacecraft and rovers on Mars.

While data from Mars could be pieced together from later downloads if certain parts of the data don't get transmitted due to interference, interference could have much more negative effects going the other way, NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL) said in a recent YouTube video about solar conjunctions.

[ The Mars rover has hit a few bumps in the road recently. Read NASA Curiosity Rover Hit By Software Snafu. ]

Solar conjunctions appear every 26 months or so, each time causing temporary stand-downs of NASA's Mars missions. NASA's Mars Odyssey orbiter has gone through six conjunctions, providing NASA with sufficient experience to ensure a smooth transition. Curiosity is the only piece of equipment that has yet to be through a solar conjunction.

Communications with and control of the Mars Curiosity rover and communications with the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter will be suspended beginning Thursday, with communications with the Opportunity rover ending and Odyssey orbiter being limited beginning April 9. The spacecraft will be fully back online by May 1.

The lost communication doesn't mean that the orbiters or rovers will stop working entirely. The orbiters will continue science observations on a reduced basis and will record data, while Odyssey will even send data to Earth throughout April despite anticipated dropouts. Opportunity, meanwhile, will continue some long-programmed scientific experiments, as will Curiosity. For example, Opportunity moved into a period on the rim of a crater in anticipation of the downtime. Both rovers will remain parked for the month.

NASA JPL says that during the solar conjunction, teams working on the rovers and orbiters will use their time to catch up on other work or take vacations. The pause hasn't slowed the pace of NASA's public relations blitz about its NASA missions, as NASA teams have continued tweeting regularly and posting videos online.

The planned temporary suspension of NASA's Mars missions comes after NASA shut down the Mars Curiosity rover for several weeks beginning on February 27 due to multiple system failures. In late February, the rover had to switch from its primary computer to a backup system after a memory glitch, and then in mid-March, the rover had to switch into safe mode after a file size mismatch was discovered.

The hiccups and pauses come at a time when Curiosity's scientific discoveries appeared to be picking up, including the announcement in mid-March that clay-like materials collected and pulverized by Curiosity suggested that Mars likely once held conditions that could support life.

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User Rank: Apprentice
4/21/2013 | 2:20:53 PM
re: NASA Pauses Mars Missions To Avoid Interference
Was this a foreseen obstacle? I am sure NASA has the capability of planning for this and planned for this outage. As infrequent as the solar conjunctions occur they must have had this plan of action in place for this situation. I would think that because of the lack of communication with the rover that teams would be more on alert as to a event occurring, rather than using this time to catch up on sleep and vacation.

Paul Sprague
InformationWeek Contributor
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