Between the 7th and the 21st of June, Mars will move outside the radio transmission range from Earth, as the red planet will be hidden behind the Sun, leaving all orbiters and the two NASA Mars rovers on their own for a couple of weeks.
The teams running all vehicles and spacecrafts on and in orbit around Mars will stop sending commands during this time, since the signals may end up scrambled and cause some serious misinterpretation by the machines.
This Mars solar conjunction happens every 26 months, and in June, Mars will be within 2 degrees from the Sun, making normal communication virtually impossible. Continuing with some of their tasks, the rovers won’t be driving or moving their arms during disconnection, but they will keep gathering certain types of data. Most data will be saved and sent after the conjunction has passed, but some data will still be sent out during the two weeks, only to be lost in space.
Most orbiters and the rovers have seen several of these radio shadow conjunctions, however, the MAVEN spacecraft is a complete newbie at this, after arriving last September in orbit around Mars. MAVEN is short for Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution, is used for measuring solar winds reaching Mars among other things, and its team will take extra care to keep the spacecraft operational during the critical time period without losing functionality or data.
The two orbiters are Mars Odyssey and Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, and even if they do continue transmitting data, some of it won’t be received on Earth, and some of the data will be held for later, and retransmitted safely at the end of June. Curiosity and Opportunity will only send certain limited information, but thanks to a relay to Earth, they will still keep sending data during the conjunction, which is still expected to reach the teams successfully.
Nagin Cox, a systems engineer at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California is leading the planning of the conjunction event for Curiosity, one of the two Mars rovers sent there by NASA, and is by now a veteran at these coordinations: “Our overall approach is based on what we did for the solar conjunction two years ago, which worked well. It is really helpful to have been through this before.”
Good thing is, the instant response lifestyle emerging on Earth these days, constantly face a worthy and humbling counterbalance, with any and all missions into our solar system and beyond.