• 63°

Mars missions scaled back in April because of sun

LOS ANGELES (AP) — It’s the Martian version of spring break: Curiosity and Opportunity, along with their spacecraft friends circling overhead, will take it easy this month because of the sun’s interference.
For much of April, the sun blocks the line of sight between Earth and Mars. This celestial alignment — called a Mars solar conjunction — makes it difficult for engineers to send instructions or hear from the flotilla in orbit and on the surface.
Such communication blackouts occur every two years when the red planet disappears behind the sun. No new commands are sent since flares and charged particles spewing from the sun can scramble transmission signals and put spacecraft in danger.
Mission teams prepared by uploading weeks of scaled-back activities beforehand.
“They’re on their own,” said Rich Zurek, chief Mars scientist at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
The rovers are banned from driving. Instead, they take a staycation and study their surroundings. The orbiting Mars Odyssey and Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter continue to listen for the rovers and make their own observations, but for the most part will transmit data once Mars is in view again.
Opportunity, Odyssey, Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and the European Space Agency’s Mars Express have survived previous bouts of restricted communications. It’s the first for Curiosity, which landed last year near the Martian equator to hunt for the chemical building blocks of life.
Beginning Thursday and through May 1, Curiosity can only check the weather every hour, measure radiation and look for signs of water below the desert-like surface. The limited chores are a departure for the active six-wheeler, which is used to driving, drilling and zapping its laser at rocks.
Before the sun got in the way, Curiosity made its biggest discovery yet: From a drilled piece of rock, it determined that its crater landing site was habitable billions of years ago, possessing some of the basic ingredients necessary to support tiny microbes.
Scientists must wait until next month to drill into another rock and start the long-delayed trek to a mountain where Curiosity will search for the elusive organic molecules that are fundamental to life as we know it. The road trip was supposed to have started last year, but longer-than-expected science experiments put Curiosity behind schedule.
Odyssey, circling Mars since 2001, has experienced half a dozen blackout episodes with no problem. This time, it will try something new. There are plans to radio Earth every day even if calls are dropped, mostly to keep engineers updated on Curiosity’s health. The rover is also programmed to send daily beeps to ground controllers.
By contrast, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter will record and store information onboard its computers and beam it back after the hiatus. Opportunity, which parked itself in a clay-rich spot, will use the down time to study a rock and track the amount of dust in the sky.
With Mars missions on autopilot, many scientists and engineers planned to take vacation while a small crew remains on duty.
“We’ve been through this before,” Zurek said. “We’re not expecting to have any problems during this period. Let’s hope it stays that way.”

Comments

Comments closed.

Coronavirus

Three deaths, 29 new COVID-19 positives reported

Crime

Blotter: Bullet holes found in woman’s Park Avenue apartment

Crime

Man faces assault charges for domestic incident

High School

Photo gallery: Carson girls win West Regional, headed to state championship

High School

High school basketball: Carson girls headed to state championship game

Local

Commissioners set date for public hearing on potential solar energy system rule changes

Health

Two of Rep. Sasser’s bills successfully pass through Health Committee

Local

Rep. Warren’s measure to allow removal of public notices from newspapers put on back burner

China Grove

China Grove Town Council weighs future of previously rejected housing development

Local

Salisbury City Council hears public comments, receives presentation on Main Street reconfiguration

Crime

Blotter: Man charged with felony drug offenses

Nation/World

California crash kills 13 of 25 people crammed into SUV

Nation/World

Biden vows enough vaccines by end of May

Coronavirus

State to vaccinate medically vulnerable starting March 24

Coronavirus

One new death, 20 new COVID-19 positives reported in Rowan

Kannapolis

Kannapolis man dies in moped crash

Crime

Salisbury Police chief addresses K-9 video, says officer separated from animal

Local

Rowan Rescue Squad sets record straight on fundraising typo

Local

City approves DOT agreement, Salisbury Station project could begin next year

Local

County plans to use vulture effigy, enforce violations to remedy animal carcass feeding problem

Education

Two weeks after ending enhanced protocols, Catawba has no COVID-19 cases

News

Council to hear revised version of Downtown Main Street Plan

Local

Veto override of NC school reopening bill fails in Senate

News

Political Notebook: Majority of likely voters, local legislators support school reopening bill