There’s a solar conjunction coming up, and it’s the perfect excuse for NASA’s Mars rovers to finally take a vacation. For a few weeks this summer, the sun will be almost directly between Earth and Mars, impeding NASA’s ability to communicate with its orbiters and rovers over at the red planet.
From July 22 to August 1, NASA won’t be sending commands to its three Mars orbiters and two Mars rovers, Curiosity and Opportunity. Charged particles from the Sun have the ability to corrupt signals being radioed to a spacecraft, as well as any data they try to send back. The results could be dire, so according to NASA it’s best not try. A corrupted signal could immensely confuse the rovers, putting them in danger if they try to follow unclear or wrong commands.
NASA won’t be totally ignoring its spacecraft over this time, however. “We will continue to receive telemetry, so we will have information every day about the status of the vehicles,” says Chad Edwards, manager of the Mars Relay Network Office at JPL.
The team at JPL will also be giving the rovers to do lists in advance that include regular health check-ups.
Although Mars won’t actually be directly behind the Sun during the solar conjunction, it’s close enough. The sun’s corona of hot, ionized gas is plenty capable of interfering with radio waves coming from the rovers back to JPL and vice versa.
This isn’t these rovers’ first conjunctions either; it’s the third for Curiosity and the seventh for Opportunity.
“All of these spacecraft are now veterans of conjunction,” says Edwards. “We know what to expect.”