Several space organizations from the US, Europe and China have experienced a temporary loss in contact with their extensive fleet of spacecraft on Mars. This comprises three rovers, one helicopter and seven orbiters.
This occurrence is attributed to what astronomers term as a solar conjunction of Mars, during which the planet is positioned on the opposite side of the Sun from Earth. This also signifies the Red Planet being at its furthest distance from Earth – approximately 234 million miles (376 million kilometers) away.
No transmissions will be dispatched on the precise date of the solar conjunction of Mars – November 17/18. Nonetheless, as per NASA, its impact persists for a week on both ends.
What causes the radio blackout on Mars?
A swift verification on The Planets Today, which provides real-time observations of the solar system, confirms that Mars and Earth are currently situated on opposite sides of the Sun. The two planets are as distant from each other as they can be, but more significantly, the Sun disrupts radio signals, making communication challenging. Although it is not impossible to transmit messages, there exists a heightened risk of corruption, leading to malfunctions in spacecraft and rovers.
The underlying reason for this is the Sun’s scorching outer atmosphere, known as the corona, which extends thousands of miles into space. It contains searing, ionized gas that impedes radio signals.
current spacecraft on mars
Per The Planetary Society, the International Mars Fleet currently consists of:
- Perseverance Rover and Ingenuity Mars Helicopter (NASA)
- Curiosity Rover (NASA)
- Zhurong Rover (China National Space Administration)
- Tianwen-1 Orbiter (China National Space Administration)
- ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter (European Space Agency/Roscosmos)
- Mars Express Orbiter (European Space Agency)
- Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (NASA)
- Odyssey Orbiter (NASA)
- MAVEN Orbiter (NASA)
- Hope Orbiter (United Arab Emirates)
All will predominantly function autonomously during communication blackouts.
What actions are taken by Mars spacecraft during a blackout?
“Our mission teams have spent months devising task schedules for all of our Mars spacecraft,” mentioned Roy Gladden, manager of the Mars Relay Network at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California. “We will still be capable of receiving updates from them and assessing their operational status in the following weeks.” This does not apply to 17/18 November when Mars will be positioned directly behind the Sun as seen from Earth.
After the closest approach of the Sun and Mars, essential health status updates can be exchanged. However, the consequences of Mars’ solar conjunction will conclude by November 25, enabling the reinstatement of direct radio communication.
A significant milestone for Curiosity
NASA’s Curiosity rover recently marked its 4,000th Martian day since landing on the Red Planet on August 5, 2012, as reported by the space agency. A Martian day – known as a sol – has a duration of 24 hours, 39 minutes and 35 seconds.
A Martian year encompasses 668 sols, equivalent to 687 Earth days. During this duration, the rover has traversed about 20 miles (32 kilometers) of Mars’ terrain and collected rock samples to gain insights into the evolution of the Martian climate.
When Mars is nearest to Earth
Mars will next reach opposition on January 16, 2025 – when Earth will be placed between the Sun and the Red Planet, and Earth and Mars will be at their closest. On that day, Mars will be visible at its largest, brightest and best, a phenomenon that occurs approximately every 687 days.
May you enjoy clear skies and keen observation.