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Mars Conjunction Signals Communications Blackout Between Earth and Mars Spacecraft (VIDEO)

Mar 25, 2013 10:08 AM EDT
Temperatures in the Martian atmosphere regularly rise and fall not just once a day, but twice.
(Photo : Reuters)

Scientists and engineers at NASA are getting ready for the next Mars solar conjunction, which will put two rovers and two Mars orbiting spacecraft in a communications black hole with Earth for most of the month of April.

A Mars solar conjunction - where the Sun, Earth and Mars align - happens every 26 months, so the event is nothing new for NASA or most of the spacecraft on the Red Planet; only the Curiosity rover, which arrived last August, has not gone through a solar conjunction.

"This is our sixth conjunction for Odyssey," said Chris Potts, 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."

The alignment of the Sun between Mars and Earth will disrupt radio transmissions between the two planets, therefore hindering communications.

According to NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), receiving a partial command could put the spacecraft in grave danger.

To prepare for the solar conjunction, the mission teams will set up command sequences and send them to the spacecraft before the conjunction begins so when communications get cut the rovers will still be able to conduct stationary science work and the orbiters will continue to receive data transmissions from the orbiters.

Transmissions to the Curiosity will be suspended from April 4 to May 1; transmissions to the Opportunity rover and the orbiters Mars Odyssey and Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter will cease from April 9-26.

"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.

Once Mars emerges from behind the Sun, NASA mission teams will be showered with several weeks of backlogged data.

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