BOULDER, Colo. — After several failed attempts to contact the apparently crippled Mars Global Surveyors (MGS) spacecraft, NASA officials were slowly realizing the 10-year mission is likely over. “We may have lost a dear old friend and teacher,” Michael Meyer, lead scientist for the Mars Explorations Program at NASA headquarters in Washington, said during a Nov. 21 press briefing at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.
NASA attempted to find and contact MGS by using several instruments aboard the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, another spacecraft currently in orbit around Mars, but to little avail.
The agency then turned for help to the surface of Mars as controllers tried Nov. 21 and Nov. 22 to send a signal to MGS instructing it to activate one of its antennas and transmit a signal to the Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity, which is currently located near Victoria Crater in an area of the planet known as Meridiani Planum. The plan was to have the rover relay the signal back to Earth via the Mars Odyssey spacecraft, which also is orbiting the red planet. The attempts on both days failed.
The Nov. 21 briefing was partly an update on the spacecraft’s likely situation by scientists, engineers and program managers and part wake as they extolled the Mars Global Surveyor’s accomplishments over the last 10 years while still holding out some hope that the errant spacecraft might be heard from again.
“Mars Global Surveyor has surpassed all expectations,” said Meyer. “It has already been the most productive science mission to Mars, and it will yield more discoveries as the treasury of observations it has made continues to be analyzed for years to come.”
An automated system aboard Mars Global Surveyor notified ground controllers on Earth Nov. 5 of problems with a balky solar panel, which apparently jammed and stopped moving as required to stay in position for maximum exposure to the Sun. Subsequent attempts to bring the MGS back online were met with silence.
“In the last two weeks we have not been able to establish communication with the spacecraft in a normal fashion,” said Fuk Li, Mars program manager at JPL. Over that period of time more than 800 command files were sent to re-establish communication with MGS, but none of them have been successful, he said.
The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter was used Nov. 17, and again Nov. 20 to try and spot the MGS within a select region of space. “Our preliminary analysis so far has not yielded any definitive sighting of MGS,” Li said Nov. 21.
Tom Thorpe, JPL’s project manager for Mars Global Surveyor, said the spacecraft’s power can vary considerably if one of its solar panels is turned completely away from the Sun.
“The power could be supported on only one panel. As long as we’re getting enough power the spacecraft is capable of maintaining itself. We have attitude gas, for example, that could keep us in this mode for one or two years. It’s anybody’s guess as to where that stuck panel is pointed … but we feel that there’s a good chance that we’re getting enough power to maintain operations,” Thorpe said.
Li said everyone involved in the project is holding out some hope, but also fully prepared for the mission to end. “But we are also fully prepared to celebrate the fact that it has been a job well done,” he added.