NASA and the China National Space Administration (CNSA), the only two space agencies in the world that currently have rovers operating on Mars, are preparing to temporarily halt their robots’ activities on the Red Planet. The reason is the approaching solar conjunction, a period when Mars and Earth are on opposite sides with the Sun between them, hampering communication with the missions.
- China “wins” NASA on its first mission to Mars; understand
- Zhurong and Perseverance: what are the differences between Chinese and US rovers?
- 60 years exploring Mars: a summary of missions that studied the Red Planet
As Mars will be “behind” the Sun relative to Earth, the two planets are temporarily invisible to each other and this has raised some concerns among NASA engineers — they fear that the Sun’s ionizing rays will undermine the instructions sent to the rovers and even corrupt the signals, causing the robots to have behaviors that can be dangerous. Therefore, the space agency decided not to send new instructions to its rovers between the 2nd and 16th of October.
This does not mean, however, that they will be completely inactive. “Each mission got a few homework assignments before listening to us again,” explained Roy Gladden, manager of the Mars transmission network at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. The Perseverance rover, for example, will continue to use its sensors to collect weather measurements and track storms that form the so-called “dust demons”.
Meanwhile, the Ingenuity helicopter must remain where it currently is, 175 m from the rover, and will send data on its status weekly to the vehicle — a new flight should only take place after the conjunction. Curiosity, in turn, will continue collecting measurements of the climate and radiation, also in search of the dust demons. Finally, the InSight spacecraft will continue tracking seismic tremors on Mars, while the orbiters will transmit some data from surface missions to Earth.
The CNSA will work with a similar strategy and has decided to pause the activities of the Zhurong rover and the Tianwen-1 orbiter temporarily, so that they both spend a period of approximately 50 days in safe mode. The orbiter will keep its autonomous operating capabilities active while traveling in a circular orbit around Mars; then they resume scientific exploration activities.