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Here’s How NASA is Keeping The Satellites Around Mars From Running Into Each Other

NASA is beefing up traffic monitoring as more satellites enter orbit around the red planet.

(Victor Habbick Visions/Science Photo Library/Corbis)
smithsonian.com

Mars’ orbit is starting to get busy. Right now, the red planet has five operational satellites from three different space agencies circling its skies, and the National Air and Space Agency is beginning to worry about them bumping into each other. To combat that, they've started working with new tracking systems to keep tabs on where each satellite is and where it is going. 

And things have already gotten a little hairy in the skies above the red planet. On January 3 of this year, a monitoring system calculated that the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution satellite (MAVEN) and the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter would come within about two miles of each other — far too close for comfort. 

Five satellites seem like they should be able to get along without getting in each others ways — after all, it’s far less complex to monitor a handful of satellites around Mars then it is to keep an eye on the 1000-plus satellites surrounding Earth. But for NASA, it’s less about the number of satellites around Mars than how they're orbiting, according to a press release Monday:

"Previously, collision avoidance was coordinated between the Odyssey and [Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter] navigation teams," said Robert Shotwell, Mars Program chief engineer at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California. "There was less of a possibility of an issue. MAVEN's highly elliptical orbit, crossing the altitudes of other orbits, changes the probability that someone will need to do a collision-avoidance maneuver. We track all the orbiters much more closely now. There's still a low probability of needing a maneuver, but it's something we need to manage."

And it's not just about keeping these satellites safe, either. NASA also expects these five to be the start of a new era of Mars exploration and wants to set its tracking procedures before the skies get too crowded. The new systems give the satellites’ handlers a heads-up before they get too close to each other, giving the technicians time to adjust their orbits. And it's about to get even more crowded on the red planet: all three of NASA’s Mars satellites are collecting information that will pave the way for future crewed missions in the next few decades.

About Danny Lewis

Danny Lewis is a multimedia journalist working in print, radio, and illustration. He focuses on stories with a health/science bent and has reported some of his favorite pieces from the prow of a canoe. Danny is based in Brooklyn, NY.

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