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NASA stops speaking to its Mars robots – for now

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NASA’s Mars robots receive their commands from the mission team at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California, but for the next few weeks communications will fall silent.

This is due to that massive fireball in the sky — aka the sun — coming between Earth and Mars. The celestial event is known as solar conjunction and happens every couple of years.

The orbits of Earth and Mars mean that the two planets will once again be in sight of each other from November 25, allowing the mission team to resume normal operations.

Affected robots include the Perseverance rover, which reached the martian surface in 2021, and the Curiosity rover, which landed in 2012. NASA’s three orbiters — Odyssey, Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, and MAVEN — are affected, too.

NASA’s Mars helicopter, Ingenuity, will also take a well-earned break before receiving its next flight plan, delivered via its travel partner, Perseverance.

Despite the break in communications, all of NASA’s vehicles will continue to gather data — Perseverance, for example, will monitor weather and radiation changes — but won’t beam any of it back to Earth until the solar conjunction has passed.

During the last solar conjunction in 2021, NASA released a short animation (below) to show exactly what’s happening. It explains that it could attempt to communicate with the robots during solar conjunction, but that charged particles from the sun could corrupt signals and, in a worst-case scenario, damage the rovers.

We'll stand down from commanding our Mars missions for the next few weeks while Earth and the Red Planet are on opposite sides of the Sun. The robotic explorers will stay busy though, collecting weather data, listening for marsquakes, and more: https://t.co/d8OrX4JD4W pic.twitter.com/NH01Rd5GUe

— NASA Mars (@NASAMars) September 28, 2021

As NASA points out in its animation, the two weeks of downtime allows the team at JPL to catch up on other work or take a vacation.

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