NASA’s Mars Spacecraft Go Solo Next Month
An unfavorable planetary alignment will force NASA’s fleet of robotic Mars explorers to be a lot more self-sufficient next month.
Mission controllers won’t send any commands to the agency’s various Mars spacecraft for much of April, because the sun will lie between Earth and the Red Planet during that time. Our star can disrupt and degrade interplanetary communications in such an alignment, which is known as a Mars solar conjunction, so spacecraft handlers won’t take any chances.
“Receiving a partial command could confuse the spacecraft, putting them in grave danger,” NASA officials explain in a video posted Tuesday (March 19) by the agency’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, Calif.
Transmissions from Earth to the Mars rover Curiosity are slated to be suspended from April 4 to May 1, officials said. No commands will be sent to Curiosity’s older rover cousin Opportunity or NASA’s Mars-orbiting craft — Mars Odyssey and the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) — from April 9 to April 26.
Both rovers will continue to do stationary science work throughout the conjunction period, relying on commands sent up to them beforehand.
“We are doing extra science planning work this month to develop almost three weeks of activity sequences for Opportunity to execute throughout conjunction,” Opportunity mission manager Alfonso Herrera of JPL said in a statement.
MRO and Mars Odyssey will continue science observations as well, though on a more limited basis. The orbiters will also continue their role as rover communication links, receiving data from Opportunity and Curiosity.
Odyssey will send information — its own observations and the rovers’ data — Earthward throughout the conjunction period, though the mission team anticipates some dropouts, so Odyssey will send the data again later as needed.
MRO will take a different tack, storing everything from April 4 until after conjunction. The spacecraft’s operators estimate it will have about 52 gigabits of data onboard when it’s cleared to transmit to Earth again on May 1.
Mars solar conjunctions occur every 26 months, so all of the spacecraft have dealt with them except Curiosity, which landed on the Red Planet last August. Opportunity has been through five conjunctions since arriving on Mars in January 2004, but Odyssey is even more experienced.
“This is our sixth conjunction for Odyssey,” Chris Potts of JPL said in a statement. Potts is mission manager for Odyssey, which has been orbiting Mars since 2001. “We have plenty of useful experience dealing with them, though each conjunction is a little different.”
Bradbury Landing in Stunning Color and 3-D
Image 1: Bradbury Landing color panorama. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/image editing by James Canvin.
Image 2: Aeolis Mons/Mount Sharp. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/image editing by Stuart Atkinson
Image 3: The “Promised Land” at the base of Aeolis Mons. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/image editing by Stuart Atkinson
Image 4: A view of Curiosity and the first tracks left by this rover on Mars. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech.
Image 5: 3-D view of Curiosity’s tracks. NASA/JPL-Caltech/image editing by Stuart Atkinson
Image 6: 3-D view of wheel tracks left by the Curiosity rover on Mars, as captured by the rover’s hazard avoidance cameras. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Stuart Atkinson
The image editing wizards at UnmannedSpaceflight are having a field day with all the sensational views being sent back by the Curiosity rover. Above is a beautiful color 360-degree panoramic view edited by James Canvin of the newly named “Bradbury Landing,” Curiosity’s landing place. The view of Aeolis Mons (Mount Sharp) is simply stunning, along with parts of (and shadows of) the rover itself. Click on the image to have access to larger views. James said he added the latest downloads from Curiosity in order to show the top of Aeolis Mons, and extended the sky to make the view complete.
Just look at this intriguing area of mesas and buttes that Curiosity will one day, hopefully be able to explore!
Thanks to Stuart and James and all the UnmannedSpaceflight image editing wizards for providing us all a better appreciation of the location and views from Curiosity’s new science spot. We look forward to more images as they become available!
Mars Science Laboratory |
Sol 2 of Curiosity’s mission Check out the Full 360 experience here
Incredible View of Curiosity Rover’s Landing Site
Here’s an intriguing look at Gale Crater, the landing spot for the Mars Science Laboratory’s Curiosity rover. This image was taken by the High Resolution Stereo Camera (HRSC) on the Mars Express spacecraft and it is color-coded based on variations in terrain. The lower elevation, shown in purple is the target landing area, but scientists and engineers want to get the rover as close as they can to the big mountain, Mount Sharp — which rises 5.5 km above the crater floor — where all the interesting geologic features are.
Orbiting spacecraft have already identified minerals and clays there that suggest water may have once filled the area, and as Curiosity slowly makes its ascent of the mountain region, it will analyze samples of these materials with its onboard laboratory in search of the building blocks of life.
The crater itself is 154 km wide, and Curiosity is aiming for a target landing ellipse that is 20 x 7 km. Initially, the rover had a target landing ellipse of 20 X 25 km, but by combining elevation data from the HRSC on Mars Express, image data from the Context Camera on NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, and color information from Viking Orbiter imagery, the target ellipse was adjusted to a smaller area.
Mars Express will be an integral part of Curiosity’s landing, providing tracking and communication data for the spacecraft.
The highlight of ESA’s support for NASA’s Curiosity landing happens at 06:29 on Monday, 6 August, when the Mars Express Lander Communication (MELACOM) system is switched on.
Recording of the radio signals transmitted by the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) is planned to begin at 07:09 and end at 07:37 (all times shown as ground event time in CEST).
ESA’s ground tracking station in New Norcia, Australia, will also listen and record signals from the NASA mission at the same time.
At 08:15, Mars Express will contact Earth via ESA’s 35 m deep space station at New Norcia, and begin transmitting the recorded information, which should take about 11 minutes to download; signals will take nearly 14 minutes to cover the 248 million km distance to Earth.
The transfer will be complete by about 08:26; the data will be transferred in real time to ESOC, and made immediately available to NASA’s MSL mission team at the Jet Propulsion Lab in California.
Here’s a graph from ESA of the timeline.
Watch Live: Why Curiosity Is the Ultimate Mars Machine
Get a rundown of the history of robotic exploration on Mars and hear why NASA’s newest Mars rover, Curiosity, is the greatest rover yet in this live show from the Slooh Space Camera collaboration starting at 2 p.m. Pacific/5 Eastern.
The last in a three-part series, the show will feature Bob Berman from Astronomy Magazine, along with Slooh’s Patrick Paolucci and Slooh engineer Paul Cox. Slooh will also be bringing live telescope images of Mars and Saturn from their Canary Islands observatory during the show.
The nuclear-powered Curiosity is the largest man-made object to ever touch down on another planet. It will search for signs of life, past or present, while scaling a 3-mile-high mountain on Mars.
The rover is set to land shortly after 10:30 p.m. Pacific on Sunday, Aug. 5.
On August 5, NASA’s Mars Curiosity rover will touch down on the surface of the Red Planet. Or that’s what we all hope, because it will be the craziest landing in the history of space exploration.
Preparations for Curiosity’s launch proceeding
Kennedy Space Center has recently created a photo album collecting their photos from the clean rooms where technicians are working madly to prepare the Curiosity Mars rover for launch. The most recent photos, taken on September 23 (so more than two weeks old now!) show the backshell being stacked on top of the folded rover and descent stage. The backshell is the bit that protects the top side of the spacecraft during its entry into Mars’ atmosphere, and contains the parachute; it will be jettisoned along with the parachute just before the descent stage rockets start firing near the end of the landing process.