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Sun temporarily halts communications between NASA and Mars missions

Robotic explorers investigating Mars are currently out of touch with space agencies on Earth after hitting a giant communications roadblock.

Mission controllers at NASA won’t send any commands to its fleet of orbiters and rovers, including Perseverance and Curiosity, for the next 10 days due to the Mars solar conjunction.

The phenomenon occurs every two years when Mars and Earth are unfavorably positioned on opposite sides of the sun as they travel along their individual orbits.

During the roughly two-week period, the hot, energized gas continually spewed by the sun from its outer atmosphere can interfere with the radio signals that NASA uses to communicate with its Martian robotic explorers.

If engineers attempt to send commands to any of the Martian spacecraft during this time, the messages may get mixed up — and that gamble isn’t worth the risk of rovers or orbiters receiving corrupted communication that could endanger them.

A planned communications drop started Saturday and is in place until November 25. For a couple of those days, mission controllers expect a complete blackout. However, they expect to receive regular health updates from the various spacecraft.

The slowdown is a nice break for the people who devote their time to working on Mars missions, but it doesn’t mean the work completely stops. The robotic fleet will still operate — albeit without the close supervision they usually receive.

“Our mission teams have spent months preparing to-do lists for all our Mars spacecraft,” said Roy Gladden, manager of the Mars Relay Network at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, in a statement. “We’ll still be able to hear from them and check their states of health over the next few weeks.”

Mars rovers and orbiters on autopilot

The Curiosity rover, which recently marked 4,000 sols (about 11 Earth years) on the Martian surface, found a suitable parking spot within its exploration site of Gale Crater. About 2,300 miles (3,700 kilometers) away, Perseverance also settled into a spot in Jezero Crater.

Both rovers received the lengthy lists of commands prior to the communications blackout that will keep them busy, including tasks such as tracking changes in the Martian weather, surface conditions and radiation.

Perseverance will take the opportunity to survey surrounding rocks and use its cameras to spot clouds and dust devils. Weaker and smaller than tornadoes on Earth, dust devils are swirling vortices of air that lift and move dust around on the red planet.

The Ingenuity helicopter, which has largely served as the Perseverance rover’s aerial scout, will also lie low and won’t conduct any flights during this time. Instead, the chopper will study the movement of sand using its color camera. While the assignment sounds like a simple task, sand can be one of the biggest and most challenging obstacles to Mars missions.

Meanwhile from above, the Mars Reconnaissance and Odyssey orbiters will continue taking images of the red planet’s surface, while MAVEN (short for Mars Atmospheric and Volatile Evolution) will track interactions between the sun and the Martian atmosphere.

Once the conjunction period is over, the robotic fleet will share the collected data, and the Mars missions and their teams will resume their normal cadence of exploring the red planet.

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