Curiosity Heading Towards Spring Break
March 25, 2013

Spring Break On Mars – Solar Conjunction Will Temporarily Disrupt Communications

Lee Rannals for - Your Universe Online

NASA's Curiosity rover has been hard at work for seven months now, and the Mars tourist is about to get its own Spring Break.

The Red Planet will be passing almost directly behind the Sun from Earth's perspective in April for two weeks, so NASA will be putting the Curiosity mission on hold. The sun is capable of disrupting radio transmissions between the two planets during the near-alignment, so NASA is holding off sending commands to the rover to prevent an impaired command from reaching Curiosity.

Every 26 months, the path between Mars and Earth is disrupted due to their orbits around the sun, hindering communication with other spacecraft. This is known as a Mars solar conjunction.

"This is our sixth conjunction for Odyssey," said Chris Potts of JPL, mission manager for NASA's Mars 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 Mars solar conjunctions are not always identical to one another and can sometimes differ in exactly how close to directly behind the sun Mars gets.

"The biggest difference for this 2013 conjunction is having Curiosity on Mars," Potts said. Odyssey and the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) relay data from Curiosity and Opportunity, another rover on mars, back to NASA.

NASA said that although transmissions from Earth to the orbiters will be suspended for two weeks, both Odyssey and MRO will receive and record data from the rovers. Odyssey will continue sending data back to Earth, but having the sun in the way might create some data dropouts. However, MRO will be in a record-only mode during that time, and will not be sending any data back to Earth.

"We are doing extra science planning work this month to develop almost three weeks of activity sequences for Opportunity to execute throughout conjunction," said Opportunity Mission Manager Alfonso Herrera of JPL. The activities during the conjunction period will not include any driving.

Curiosity can still make science observations during this period from the location it is sitting at, but it can't receive commands from NASA and will not be rolling to any new areas.

"We will maintain visibility of rover status two ways," said Torsten Zorn of JPL, conjunction planning leader for the mission's engineering operations team. "First, Curiosity will be sending daily beeps directly to Earth. Our second line of visibility is in the Odyssey relays."

Curiosity's main mission is to help scientists determine whether there is any evidence on Mars that the Red Planet once hosted life. After the rover's first drilling in February, the door was opened wide for the possibility that life once existed on the Red Planet. Curiosity uncovered the presence of sulfur, nitrogen, hydrogen, oxygen, phosphorus and carbon — all of which are key chemical ingredients for life – in a sedimentary rock on Mars.