Out with the old and in with the new

Posted by Rich Talcott
on Thursday, November 16, 2006

In these days of ever-quickening technology development and new gaming consoles, it’s a mantra we all seemingly embrace. But it seems a little harder this week, as we face the possibility that the Mars Global Surveyor (MGS) spacecraft may be nearing its end.

Sure, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) has just started returning glorious and detailed images of the martian surface, revealing objects 10 times smaller than MGS could. But it was Global Surveyor that detected young gullies evidently cut by flowing water. And it was Global Surveyor that discovered a region of Meridiani Planum rich in hematite — a mineral that almost always forms in water. The latter area became the landing site for the Opportunity rover, which sampled the soil and proved that vast quantities of water once existed on Mars.

MGS was also a survivor. It arrived at Mars for a 2-year mission in September 1997, when the Pathfinder mission and its Sojourner rover were still operating on the surface. It studied the Red Planet while the Mars Climate Orbiter and Mars Polar Lander missions failed. And it survived long enough to see Mars exploration rebound with the successes of Mars Express, Mars Odyssey, the Spirit and Opportunity rovers, and now MRO. During its 9 years of operation, it has returned 240,000 images and more data than all previous Mars missions combined.

But on November 2, the spacecraft reported trouble as a motor attempted to move one of the solar arrays. Onboard software switched to a backup motor controller, but the spacecraft lost contact with Earth for 2 days. Mission engineers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory finally received a carrier signal from MGS on November 5, reporting that it had entered “safe mode.” But there’s been no word in the 10 days since.

NASA hasn’t given up hope. Global Surveyor has plenty of redundant systems and presumably could return to normal operations — if communications get re-established. This Friday (the 17th), NASA will have MRO take images of MGS when the two spacecraft will be 90 miles (150 km) apart. MRO’s camera should be able to see details as small as 4 inches (10cm) across, revealing MGS’ orientation relative both to the Sun (where it gets its power) and to Earth (with which it needs to communicate). With perhaps more than a little luck, the new technology may be able to help save the old.

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