2021, October: Mars Command Pause

NASA is pausing operational commands with the spacecraft exploring Mars as the Red Planet nears its conjunction with the sun.

NASA’s Mars missions, clockwise from top left: Perseverance rover and Ingenuity Mars Helicopter, InSight lander, Odyssey orbiter, MAVEN orbiter, Curiosity rover, and Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
Photo Caption – NASA’s Mars missions, clockwise from top left: Perseverance rover and Ingenuity Mars Helicopter, InSight lander, Odyssey orbiter, MAVEN orbiter, Curiosity rover, and Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

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by Jeffrey L. Hunt

About every 25 months, the Red Planet lines up with the sun. This is known as the solar conjunction that occurs on October 7 (11:01 p.m. CDT).  The planet is on the far side of the sun, over 240 million miles away.

This animation illustrates Mars solar conjunction, a period when Mars is on the opposite side of the Sun from Earth. During this time, the Sun can interrupt radio transmissions to spacecraft on and around the Red Planet. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
This animation illustrates Mars solar conjunction, a period when Mars is on the opposite side of the Sun from Earth. During this time, the Sun can interrupt radio transmissions to spacecraft on and around the Red Planet. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

According to a NASA news release, the space agency will suspend operational commands. From October 2 through October 16 no commands will be sent to the over half dozen remote sensors that are studying the Martian environment from orbit, on the ground, and through flight in the thin atmosphere.

Solar Eclipse
Solar Eclipse. The corona is visible (NASA photo)

The sun’s atmosphere, known as the corona that becomes visible during a total solar eclipse, can affect radio transmissions that pass through it on their way from Earth to Mars. To keep the spacecraft safely in their current positions, commands are suspended.

While the Red Planet moves behind the sun and its extended atmosphere the safest operation is to place the spacecraft in a mode that allows them to collect data.

The remote stations will continue to take photographs, weather and atmospheric measurements, and monitor possible Mars quakes.

During the hiatus, no new images will be sent to Earth.  They will be radioed home after Mars clears the interference from the sun’s corona.

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