NASA Rover To Go Solo as Mars Slips Behind Sun

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NASA scientists will stop sending commands to the Mars Opportunity rover Jan. 27 for about two weeks while the red planet is almost directly behind the sun from Earth’s perspective. Mars rover operators won’t resume sending commands until Feb. 11.

During such Mars-sun-Earth alignments, the sun can disrupt radio transmissions between the two planets. A corrupted command signal could potentially harm Opportunity, researchers said.

It will be the fourth time a solar conjunction has precipitated a command suspension since Opportunity landed on Mars in January 2004.

But the rover team has developed a set of commands to send to Opportunity in advance of the conjunction, so the golf-cart-size rover will have plenty to do during the moratorium, according to NASA. Opportunity will spend the time exploring a crater called Santa Maria, looking for new and exciting things, researchers said.

“The goal is to characterize the materials in an area that shows up with a mineralogical signal, as seen from orbit, that’s different from anywhere else Opportunity has been,” Bruce Banerdt, rover project scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., said in a statement.

A similar command moratorium will apply to the NASA spacecraft circling the red planet, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) and Mars Odyssey, researchers said.

These spacecraft will still be able to send data to Earth during the communications suspension, but at a much-reduced rate. Mars-to-Earth communication does not present a risk to spacecraft safety even if transmissions are corrupted by the sun, researchers said.

MRO will scale back its observations during the conjunction, since it has a limited amount of on-board storage space and will not be able to download as much data to Earth.