Mars Rovers Phone Home After Sunny Vacation

Mars is now a safe distance from the sun so NASA can once again communicate with the rovers. This photo was taken this morning by the orbiting Solar and Heliospheric Observatory. Mars has moved to the west of the sun into the morning sky. Credit: NASA/ESA

Mars has finally cleared the sun. That puts us back in touch with the two Martian rovers Curiosity and Opportunity and the three functioning satellites, Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), Mars Odyssey, and Mars Express.

The Curiosity rover took the dozens of images that were combined into this stereo scene of the rover and its surroundings. Mt. Sharp, one of the key targets of the mission, is in the distance. To see the scene in 3-D, don a pair of red-blue glasses. Click here for a giant image. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Communications between Mars and Earth were suspended between April 9 and April 26  when Mars was in (or near) conjunctionwith the sun. As seen from Earth, the planet passed very close to the brilliant solar disk. Any commands and communications sent around the time of conjunction risk being corrupted by charged particles and solar flares in the line of sight between Mars and Earth. Since one bad command could potentially cripple a rover or satellite, NASA imposed a communications blackout for most of April.

One of the last images sent to Earth by Curiosity before solar conjunction. The scene was taken by the right front hazard avoidance camera on April 4. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

According to Guy Webster, Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL) spokesperson, NASA finally heard again from the rovers over the weekend. Curiosity weathered the hiatus well, but Opportunity booted itself into standby mode when it sensed something amiss on April 22, possibly during a routine camera scan of the clarity of the atmosphere. Fresh commands should solve the problem.

“Both are healthy,” said Webster. Contact so far has been one-way — from rovers to Earth. Starting Wednesday May 1 data gathered during the blackout will follow. Reid Thomas,  Deputy Mission Manager of JPL, anticipates about 40 gigabits from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and about 12 gigs from Curiosity. Just a little homework assignment during the month-long “vacation”.

We’ve grown so accustomed to the steady stream of Curiosity’s discoveries on the Red Planet some of us have been experiencing withdrawal pangs. They’ll soon come to an end as mission controllers get back in the rover’s driver seat in May.