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Rousing Mars Express
Rousing Mars Express
27 Sep 2004
(Source: European Space Agency)

Conjunction Over, Engineers Rouse Mars Express
European Space Agency
27 September 2004

For mission controllers, a solar conjunction means that a spacecraft, the Sun and the Earth are in alignment. Yesterday, engineers at the European Space Agency successfully brought Mars Express out of a lengthy and long-planned nap as it travelled out of a conjunction and away from potential Sun-caused communications interference.

If you use a mobile phone, you've likely experienced static when a building or surrounding geography interferes with the signal between your handset and the receiving antenna.

During the recent conjunction, communications with Mars Express could similarly have been affected, but the interference, caused by the Sun's corona, was potentially more serious than just a dropped call.

On 22 August, Mars Express entered into a solar conjunction phase, and on 15 September the craft approached to within one degree away from the Sun as viewed from Earth. Mars Express itself was in no danger as it was in fact safely voyaging around Mars 399 million kilometres away from Earth on the opposite side of the Sun (see figure).

Solar conjunction threatens communications

The solar conjunction, however, meant that radio command signals travelling to and from Mars Express passed through the Sun's super-heated, super-active corona, which comprises the upper reaches of the Sun's atmosphere. This highly active area is a hotbed of strong electromagnetic radiation as well as a source of the intense particles that form the solar wind.

Had mission controllers attempted to transmit radio signals to Mars Express as the Earth-to-spacecraft line of sight skimmed by the Sun, chances are high that the signals would have been degraded or scrambled by interference from the corona. Commands might not get through (or only partially so) with unpredictable effects on the spacecraft's operation.

To cater for this event, flight controllers at the European Space Operations Centre (ESOC) in Darmstadt, Germany, had long planned for a blackout period lasting from 22 August until 27 September in which Mars Express was placed in a minimum activity configuration with no science data being downloaded and only the barest of command signals being sent up.

"We had a one week preparation period going into blackout and the same to come out, with three weeks of 'stay still' in between," said Mars Express Spacecraft Operations Manager Michel Denis adding, "We wanted the spacecraft to be as stable and quiet as possible."

Denis said that communications were not totally blocked during the conjunction. This allowed controllers to monitor the status of the spacecraft and in fact to collect and analyse samples of radio signals received from Mars Express that were distorted by the solar corona ? precisely what radio astronomers do when they study solar activity. In space science, somebody?s noise is always somebody else?s signal.

Sleepy, low-rate communications

During Mars Express' quiet period, ESOC engineers maintained a 300-bit-per-second (bps) downlink channel open for daily, if highly limited, communication. This was just a trickle, however, compared to the usual 30- to 200-kilobit-per-second (kbps) science data downlink. The spacecraft was, for most intents and purposes, left undisturbed.

Yesterday, controllers on Denis' team got a full signal from the spacecraft for the first time in over a month, and re-established a full daily regimen of spacecraft communications, including transmitting signals in both the X- and S-bands.

Satellites generally use the S-band (2.0?2.3 GHz) for uplink telemetry and telecommanding while the X-band (10.7-20 GHz) is used for low-power, high-volume data transmission back to Earth.

To achieve this, engineers have been working since last week to reload scientific experimentation programs into onboard processors, verify communications, and generally make sure that Mars Express is once again wide awake and ready for scientific exploration.

Recent Mars Express milestones:

  • Discovery that Mars' atmospheric water vapour & methane seem to have a common underground source: 20 September 2004
  • Date of maximum distance from Earth: 5 September 2004 (399,003,610 km)
  • Radio-signal travel time at this distance: 22.2 minutes
  • Date of last autonomous switch to Safe Mode: 15 March 2004
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Last Updated: 20 Oct 2004