Curiosity takes summer break

For the first time since it landed on Mars last year, scientists at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory can’t send commands to the rover Curiosity.

The one-ton rover and its fellow Martian probes are on a “summer break” until May 1. Earlier this month, the sun came into position between Mars and Earth. The solar conjunction occurs about every 26 months and during this time, communication between the two planets is near impossible.

Signals sent from Earth could be distorted on the way to Mars, so Curiosity and its predecessor, the rover Opportunity, are staying parked on the Red Planet for the remainder of the month. Orbiters Odyssey and Reconnaissance will continue to monitor Mars.

To prepare for the break, scientists and engineers at the La Cañada Flintridge facility have prepared the robots with a list of simple duties to perform in their absence. The rovers and orbiters are recording the data they collect on the Martian atmosphere so scientists can play it back on Earth next month.

“We’re really counting on these vehicles to handle themselves,” said Rich Zurek, a chief Mars scientist at JPL.

While it’s spring on Earth, it’s currently summer on Mars. That means the rovers are enjoying warm weather — relative to Mars—during their partial vacation, said Zurek. “The temperature may get up just above freezing during the day.”

The weather should give the rovers plenty of solar energy with which to complete their homework.

Members of the Curiosity mission have worked unorthodox hours since the rover landed on Aug. 5. A day on Mars, called a sol, is 39 minutes and 35 seconds longer than a day on Earth. Many scientists and engineers switched to Mars time for the first 90 days of the mission, sometimes starting shifts in the middle of the night.

Now team members have an opportunity to go on vacation, rest at home, or catch up on other work. The pressure of managing a daily surface operation is lifted.

“There are a lot of people getting much-needed rest,” said Torsten Zorn, a JPL engineer who works on the Curiosity mission. “It’s quiet.”

Last month, Curiosity drilled into a Martian rock, uncovering clues that the environment was possibly once habitable to life. When the rover gets rolling again in May, the team plans to send it on its next drilling expedition. Eventually Curiosity will trek Mt. Sharp, a three-mile-high mountain in the middle of an ancient crater that is the main science target of the two-year mission.

Right now, JPL is enjoying an early summer break. The Curiosity team usually plays “wake-up” songs for the rover when the day starts on Mars. Even though they can’t speak to the rover, Zorn said in honor of the solar conjunction, they’ve started playing conjunction-themed songs. The picks so far include Alice Cooper’s “School’s Out” and “Conjunction Junction” by Schoolhouse Rock!

“We’ve got a good summertime playlist for Curiosity,” he said.


Follow Tiffany Kelly on Google+ and on Twitter: @LATiffanyKelly.

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