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Technical glitches paralyses Mars orbiters

Engineers are working to restore NASA's two Mars orbiters, Mars Odyssey (shown) and Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, to normal operation (Illustration: NASA/JPL)

NEW DELHI (BNS): NASA's Mars Odyssey and Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter have been paralysed by technical glitches resulting in the Red Planet experiencing a partial radio blackout this week.

The outages will delay operation of the twin Mars rovers - Spirit and Opportunity - which use the orbiters to efficiently relay data back to Earth, until one of the probes can be brought back online later this week.

Mars Odyssey has been the prime communications relay for the rovers since they landed in 2004. The orbiter’s computers registered a memory error on 28 November and sent the spacecraft into "safe mode", which minimises spacecraft operations.

Meanwhile, NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) has been kept on standby since August, when the spacecraft spontaneously rebooted for the fourth time this year.

The solar-powered Mars rovers can communicate with antennas on Earth directly, but the orbiters can relay information from the rovers to Earth at more than 10 times that speed, using a fraction of the energy.
Attempts to free the Spirit rover, stuck in a sand pit for more than six months, will be delayed due to the outages.

“The rovers are safe. However, future activities are likely delayed, roughly on a day-for-day basis until Odyssey returns to relay operations,” Journal new Scientist quoted John Callas, the rover programme manager at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, as saying.

“Odyssey has experienced similar memory glitches in the past, and such events are not considered a big problem for the spacecraft, as they occur infrequently and there is a known recovery procedure,” said Jeffrey Plaut, Mars Odyssey project scientist at JPL.

Odyssey is now steering itself again so that it can keep its instruments pointed at Mars. But it will be at least several days before regular science operations and communications with the Mars rovers will begin. "We expect to be completely back on our feet by the end of the week," Plaut said.

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