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Relay Test: Europe’s Mars Orbiter Picks Up Data from NASA’s Opportunity, Curiosity Rovers

Dec 02, 2016 04:53 AM EST
Curiosity Self-Portrait at 'Mojave' on Mount Sharp
A NASA radio aboard Europe’s Mars orbiter has aced its first relay test. Data was transmitted to the radio from NASA’s Opportunity and Curiosity rovers and was successfully relayed to Earth.
(Photo : NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS via Getty Images)

One of NASA's twin Electra radios aboard Europe's Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) has aced its first relay test on Nov. 22.

The orbiter's main radio received data transmitted by NASA's Opportunity and Curiosity rovers and was successfully relayed to Earth. This will strengthen the international telecommunications network supporting future Mars explorations, NASA said.

"The arrival of ESA's Trace Gas Orbiter at Mars, with its NASA-provided Electra relay payload on board, represents a significant step forward in our Mars relay capabilities," Chad Edwards, manager of the Mars Relay Network Office within the Mars Exploration Program at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said in a statement.

"In concert with our three existing NASA orbiters and ESA's earlier Mars Express orbiter, we now have a truly international Mars relay network that will greatly increase the amount of data that future Mars landers and rovers can return from the surface of the Red Planet."

The European Space Agency's (ESA) TGO is part of the ExoMars mission - a joint project between Europe and the Russian federal space agency Roscosmos. TGO reached Mars on Oct. 19 and is well within its initial highly elliptical path around the Red Planet. According to ESA, its orbit ranges from as far as 60,000 miles above the surface to less than 200 miles, circling the planet every 4.2 days.

NASA added that the frequent use of TGO's relay capability to support Mars rover operations will start more than a year from now, once the orbiter is at a 250-mile (400-kilometer) altitude circular orbit around Mars.

The Electra radios include special features for relaying data from a rover or stationary lander to an orbiter passing overhead. The relay of information from surface craft to orbiters, then from orbiters to Earth, will allow space agencies to receive more data from surface missions.

"We already have almost 13 years' experience using ESA's Mars Express as an on-call backup for data relay from active Mars rovers, and TGO will greatly expand this to routine science-data relay," Michel Denis, TGO flight director at ESA's European Space Operations Center in Darmstadt, Germany, said in a statement.

"In 2020, TGO will extend this relay support to ESA's ExoMars rover and the Russian Surface Platform, an important capability together with its science mission that enhances the international data network at Mars."

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