NASA Will Lose Contact With Mars for 14 Days This Month

A conjunction with the sun will cause a two-week pause in commands to NASA Mars missions

Sunset on Mars
The sun sets on Mars. From June 7 to 21, Mars will be obscured from Earth by the sun, causing a communications blackout. NASA/JPL-Caltech/Michael Benson/Kinetikon Pictures/Corbis

Call it a planned pause: about every 26 months, Mars passes behind the sun, cutting off communication with Earth. This "solar conjunction" is an issue for NASA, which runs five active Mars-related missions. Discovery News’ Ian O’Neill describes how the agency is prepping for the next blackout, which will take place from June 7 to 21. 

During the blackout, the agency will avoid sending commands to its two rovers, Curiosity and Opportunity, and its three orbiters, Reconnaissance, Odyssey and MAVEN. 

“It’s really helpful to have been through this before,” Nagin Cox, a systems engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said in a statement about the blackout. She notes that though it will be the first conjunction for the MAVEN spacecraft, all of the other missions have been through this before — seven times for Odyssey, six for Opportunity and five for Opportunity.

Though there could be a chance that commands will reach Mars from Earth during the conjunction, the agency writes that they’d rather take a temporary break than send “garbled commands that could be misinterpreted or even harmful.”

Each device will respond to the blackout differently. O’Neill writes that Curiosity and Opportunity will still transmit “limited data,” to the orbiters during the conjunction, but will also make backups so they can transmit data collected during the conjunction to Earth once Mars moves back into sight. Curiosity will keep its own backups, but the aging Opportunity rover will be backed up by orbiters instead. NASA notes that the rovers will take a break from driving and arm movements, saving up any data they do collect and beaming it back to Earth once the coast is clear. 

The orbiters, on the other hand, will keep taking measurements and transmitting them back to Earth, but the agency is keeping expectations low. “Some of those transmissions are not expected to reach Earth,” they write, noting that they’re working overtime to clear data from the memories of the crafts to make room for backup and re-transmission after June 21. Here’s more information on what will happen in the night sky when Mars goes incommunicado.