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Sun forces Martian rovers to take a staycation


Mars solar conjunction blocks communication every two years (File Image: NASA)
Mars solar conjunction blocks communication every two years (File Image: NASA)

Staff writers

April 4, 2013 — It's the Martian version of spring break: Curiosity and Opportunity, along with their spacecraft friends circling overhead, will take it easy this month because of the sun's interference.

There are plans to radio Earth every day, mostly to keep engineers updated on Curiosity's -- first-time staycationer -- health (Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS)
There are plans to radio Earth every day, mostly to keep engineers updated on Curiosity's -- first-time staycationer -- health (Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS)

For much of April, the sun blocks the line of sight between Earth and Mars. 

This celestial alignment -- called a Mars solar conjunction -- makes it difficult for engineers to send instructions or hear from the flotilla in orbit and on the surface.

Such communication blackouts occur every two years when the red planet disappears behind the sun. 

No new commands are sent since flares and charged particles spewing from the sun can scramble transmission signals and put spacecraft in danger.

Mission teams prepared by uploading weeks of scaled-back activities beforehand.

"They're on their own,'' said Rich Zurek, chief Mars scientist at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

The rovers are banned from driving. Instead, they take a staycation and study their surroundings.

The orbiting Mars Odyssey and Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter continue to listen for the rovers and make their own observations, but for the most part will transmit data once Mars is in view again.

Beginning Thursday and through May 1, Curiosity can only check the weather every hour, measure radiation and look for signs of water below the desert-like surface. 

The limited chores are a departure for the active six-wheeler, which is used to driving, drilling and zapping its laser at rocks.


With files from The Associated Press


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