NASA’s MAVEN orbiter at Mars faced ‘existential threat’

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A NASA probe tasked with studying Mars from orbit is back to performing its science after a major problem kept it sidelined for months.

Why it matters: The MAVEN spacecraft has been orbiting Mars since 2014, and in that time, revealed the key role powerful solar winds played in turning Mars from a wet, relatively warm world into the cold, dry one it is today.

  • The spacecraft has also been a relay station for communications between NASA’s spacecraft on the surface of the planet and Earth.

What’s happening: In February, MAVEN started having problems with navigational instruments called Inertial Measurement Units (IMUs) designed to help make sure the spacecraft is pointed in the right direction.

  • MAVEN cycled its computer to try to re-boot itself and bring the IMUs back into service. When that didn’t work, the spacecraft had to switch to its backup computer, which allowed mission managers to get better readings from IMU-2.
  • Controllers on the ground then got to work implementing a navigational system to allow MAVEN to figure out how to keep itself pointed in the right direction.
  • The team was originally going to move to that system later this year anyway, but had to speed up the development in order to keep the spacecraft functioning.

The intrigue: “The team really stepped up to an existential threat,” Rich Burns, the MAVEN project manager at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, said in a statement.

  • According to a report from Space.com, the team came perilously close to losing MAVEN.
  • While they were attempting to get MAVEN functioning again, the spacecraft was drifting, losing its focus on the Sun, which could have ended the mission had they not gotten an IMU back online just in time, Meghan Bartels reported.
  • But even once they got the spacecraft into a safe configuration, that wasn’t the end of the drama. MAVEN wasn’t able to act as a communications relay from Mars to Earth during its downtime, decreasing the amount of science coming from the Red Planet as a whole, Bartels added.

What’s next: MAVEN is now back to full science operations and embarking on a freshly extended mission that will see it continuing to study how the Sun’s activity affects the Martian atmosphere.

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