NASA loses contact with Mars missions as darkness falls on the Red Planet

NASA loses contact with Mars missions as darkness falls on the Red Planet

Space agencies in the United States, Europe and China have temporarily lost contact with a huge fleet of spacecraft on Mars. This includes three rovers, one helicopter and seven orbiters.

The reason is what astronomers call the solar conjunction of Mars, where the red planet is on the opposite side of the sun from Earth. The Red Planet is also seen at its farthest point from Earth, about 234 million miles (376 million kilometers).

On the exact date of the Mars solar conjunction — November 17/18 — no messages will be sent. However, the effects last for a week on either side, according to NASA.

Why is Mars in a radio blackout?

A quick check of The Planets Today website, which gives a live view of the solar system, confirms that Mars and Earth are now on opposite sides of the sun. The two planets are far apart from each other, but more importantly, the sun interferes with radio signals, making communications difficult. It’s not impossible to send messages, but there is a high risk of them getting corrupted, which could cause spacecraft and rovers to behave erratically.

The root cause is the Sun’s hottest outer atmosphere, the corona, which extends thousands of miles into space. It consists of hot, ionized gas that interferes with radio signals.

The spacecraft is on Mars now

According to the Planetary Society, the international Mars fleet currently is:

  • Perseverance rover and Ingenuity Mars helicopter (NASA)
  • Rover Curiosity (NASA)
  • Rover Zurong (China National Space Administration)
  • Tianwen-1 orbiter (China National Space Administration)
  • ExoMars gas tracking orbiter (ESA/Roscosmos)
  • Mars Express spacecraft (ESA)
  • Mars Reconnaissance Vehicle (NASA)
  • Odyssey orbiter (NASA)
  • MAVEN orbit (NASA)
  • Hope Probe (United Arab Emirates)

They will all essentially operate independently for the duration of the communications outage.

What will the Mars spacecraft do during a power outage?

“Our mission teams have spent months preparing mission lists for all of our Mars spacecraft,” said Roy Gladden, director of the Mars Relay Network at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California. “We will still be able to listen to them and check on their health over the next few weeks.” This does not apply to November 17/18 when Mars will be directly behind the Sun as seen from Earth.

After the closest transit of the Sun and Mars, basic health check messages can be exchanged. However, the influence of Mars’ solar conjunction will fade by November 25, allowing direct radio communications to be re-established.

A moment of historical curiosity

According to the space agency, NASA’s Curiosity rover recently celebrated its 4,000th Martian day since landing on the red planet on August 5, 2012. A Martian day – called Sol – lasts 24 hours, 39 minutes and 35 seconds.

There are 668 sols in a Martian year, which is equivalent to 687 Earth days. During that time, the rover traveled nearly 20 miles (32 kilometers) across the surface of Mars, sampling rocks to learn more about how Mars’ climate evolved.

When Mars is closest to Earth

Mars will then reach opposition — when Earth is between the Sun and the red planet, and Earth and Mars will be at their closest — on January 16, 2025. On that day, Mars will appear at its biggest, brightest, and best, something that only happens roughly every 687 days.

I wish you clear skies and wide eyes.

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(Tags for translation) Mars

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