The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) is an important tool for scientists studying the red planet. Not only can it take high-resolution images of Mars from its position in space, it serves as a vital communications link for rovers on the planet. That’s why NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory took aggressive action last week when the satellite reported a malfunction. It’s currently in standby mode as a precaution, but JPL scientists hope to have it operational again in the coming week or two.
NASA launched the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter way back in 2005, and it reached orbit of Mars in 2006. Since then, it has mapped the surface of the planet and helped choose landing sites for multiple missions like the Phoenix lander and Curiosity. It also discovered the remains of the lost Beagle 2 lander and evidence of water ice inside the planet.
The primary mission for this spacecraft was supposed to last just two years, but it’s been operating for more than 12 years so far. It looked at first like it might be the end of the line for the MRO last week, though. The satellite has a pair of nickel-hydrogen batteries that keep it operational when it’s in the shadow of Mars. They’re supposed to be recharged via the solar panels when it’s back on the light side, but on Feb. 15 the orbiter reported critically low battery voltage.
NASA flipped the MRO into standby mode so it could recharge its batteries, but that means it can’t make observations or act as a relay for ground missions. The team is conducting diagnostic operations to understand what went wrong with the power system. The problem may have been related to the batteries themselves or the solar panels. Another system on the satellite may also have consumed more power than expected.
The plan is to bring the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter back online as a surface relay in the next week. If all goes as planned, it could resume science operations the following week. NASA hopes to keep the MRO operational long enough to support the upcoming Mars 2020 rover mission, and it recently announced some changes to ensure that happens. The satellite will spend less time on the dark side of Mars, and changes to the spacecraft’s other systems should reduce draw on the batteries and prolong their life. It’s unclear if these changes had anything to do with the battery malfunction. It’s possible the team just has some kinks to work out in the new programming.
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