JPL Has Lost Mars Signal

Engineers are still attempting to contact the Mars Global Surveyor satellite through various methods utilizing other Mars explorers in a Martian rescue mission. The satellite stop relaying data to Earth just days before its 10th anniversary. "We first lost it on Nov. 2, then got it back on the fifth but lost it again," said Tom Thorpe, MGS project manager from JPL.

The orbiter is the oldest of the five NASA spacecraft currently in orbit around Mars. Launched on Nov. 7, 1996 the MGS has operated longer than any other spacecraft that has been sent to the planet. It began its orbit of Mars on Sept.11, 1997.

On Nov. 2 the spacecraft was sent commands for a routine maneuver of moving solar panels. "We move the solar panels to keep the [spacecraft] charged," Thorpe said.

During the maneuver the spacecraft reported one of the arrays had experienced error, the backup system was initiated. However, the problem persisted. "It is like a gimbal error on the arm," Thorpe said.

According to Thorpe, a signal was received briefly on the fifth during three orbits. Since then it has been silent. "We have tried various commands," Thorpe said.

Engineers are still attempting to contact the spacecraft using MSG's software however they are also taking advantage of other exploration vehicles in orbit and on the surface of the planet. Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, which is the most recent addition to the Mars satellite family, will take high resolution pictures of MSG.

In addition to photos they will also attempt to send a signal to one of two rovers on the surface of Mars and relay it to another spacecraft in orbit and bounce that message back to Earth, Thorpe said.

This will utilize the other spacecraft and rovers allowing them to be a type of Mars rescue mission. In the past, MSG has been involved with the same type of rescue missions for other spacecraft that have lost their signal.

MSG's primary mission was scheduled to last for one Mars year, almost two Earth years. NASA extended its mission three times, most recently on Oct. 1. It pioneered the use of aerobraking, a procedure that cautiously skims the top of the atmosphere for friction to shrink a long elliptical orbit into a nearly circular one. Throughout its almost 10 years the spacecraft has made many discoveries including finding gullies cut into many slopes that have few impact craters this indicates they are geologically young. The camera has returned more than 240,000 images to Earth.

"We have had lots of discoveries," Thorpe said. He added that he has not given up on the spacecraft and there are many options engineers will be using to find out what happened and what how much damage has been done.

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