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Nasa on alert as Mars ‘solar conjunction’ poses threat to Red Planet robots

A Nasa graphic illustrating the Mars solar conjunction

A Nasa graphic illustrating the Mars solar conjunction

Nasa engineers are preparing to deal with a period called the Mars ‘solar conjunction’ which poses a serious risk to its Red Planet exploration robots.

On August 28, Mars and Earth will be on opposite sides of the sun.

Our star spews out hot gas which can interfere with radio signals used to communicate with spacecraft orbiting Mars or rovers on its surface.

This can result in ‘corrupted commands’ caused ‘unexpected behaviour from our deep space explorers’.

To make sure the machines don’t do themselves a mischief, Nasa has ordered a ‘command moratorium’ from Monday of this week until September 7.

This will mean engineers ‘hold off on sending commands’ until Mars moves into a position where radio signals from Earth can reach it without interference from the sun.

Curiosity has been operational on Mars since August 2012

The Curiosity Rover has been operational on Mars since August 2012 (Image: Nasa)

‘It’s that time again,’ said Roy Gladden, manager of the Mars Relay Network at Nasa’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

‘Our engineers have been preparing our spacecraft for conjunction for months.

‘They’ll still be collecting science data at Mars, and some will attempt to send that data home.

‘But we won’t be commanding the spacecraft out of concern that they could act on a corrupted command.’

Solar conjunction occurs every two years.

Some instruments such as cameras will be switched off because they gather a lot of data, whilst the spacecraft will be given ‘simply to-do lists than they would normally carry out’.

Nasa added: ‘On the surface of Mars, the Curiosity rover will stop driving, while the InSight lander won’t move its robotic arm.

‘Above Mars, both the Odyssey orbiter and the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter will continue collecting data from Curiosity and InSight for return to Earth. However, only Odyssey will attempt to relay that data to Earth before conjunction ends.

‘In the meantime, another orbiter, MAVEN, will continue to collect its own science data but won’t support any relay operations during this time.’

‘All of this means that there will be a temporary pause in the stream of raw images available from Curiosity, InSight and the other Mars missions. Mars solar conjunction impacts operations of all spacecraft currently at Mars, not just Nasa’s.’

Once conjunction is over, the spacecraft will send the data they’ve collected to Nasa’s Deep Space Network, a system of massive Earth-based radio antennas.

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