Nov
22
2006

Mars Orbiter probably not missing due to evil Decepticons

Mars Global Surveyor: Image courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech.
Mars Global Surveyor: Image courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech.

Have you seen the trailer for the new Transformers movie? It has the story line of the Beagle 2 Mars rover being lost after landing on Mars and the implication is that an evil Decepticon destroys it as, “the only warning we will ever get.”


While I doubt that transforming Lamborghini’s are the cause, a space probe orbiting Mars has recently gone missing. The Mars Global Surveyor (MGS), launched on November 7, 1996, is one of several probes currently studying Mars. (The others include the orbiters Mars Odyssey, Mars Express, and Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter; and the rovers Spirit and Opportunity.) The original mission of the MGS was scheduled to last only about two years, but NASA has repeatedly extended the mission making the MGS the longest operating spacecraft ever sent to Mars. The MGS was launched in part to replace the Mars Observer, which disappeared in 1993 before reaching Mars (again, probably not Decepticons). Most of the Mars Observer’s instruments were rebuilt and installed on the MGS.
It has gathered more information on the Red Planet than all previous missions combined, all in all the spacecraft has been a tremendously successful workhorse.


The mission was most recently extended on October 1, however, early this month problems began to arise. On November 2 the spacecraft was sent commands for a routine moving of its solar panels. The spacecraft reported that the motor responsible for moving one of the panels had problems and had as a result switched to backup systems. While this is how the spacecraft is programmed to respond, no transmissions from the spacecraft were received for two days. On November 5 several transmissions were received that indicated the spacecraft had entered a “safe” mode, a pre-programmed state of minimal activity. After receiving no transmissions from the spacecraft on November 6 NASA engineers figured the spacecraft had followed further safety protocols when it determines a solar panel is stuck which result in turning the spacecraft so the panels face the sun, which result in making successful transmissions to Earth difficult. This past Monday NASA had hoped to get an image of the MGS from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, but was unsuccessful. Yesterday NASA engineers sent a signal to the MGS that requested that it turn on a beacon on one of the two Mars rovers on the surface. Unfortunately, the Opportunity Rover did not get a signal from the MRS yesterday, but NASA will try again today. If that fails, NASA will continue to attempt to contract the MGS through the end of the year, but it may be that the mission of the Mars Global Surveyor may finally have come to an end.
One of the last images from Mars Global Surveyor?: Clouds and the Martian north polar cap are seen in this mosaic of images from the Mars Orbiter Camera onboard the Mars Global Surveyor.  Image courtesy NASA/JPL/Malin Space Science Systems.
One of the last images from Mars Global Surveyor?: Clouds and the Martian north polar cap are seen in this mosaic of images from the Mars Orbiter Camera onboard the Mars Global Surveyor. Image courtesy NASA/JPL/Malin Space Science Systems.
One of the things the MGS did that I thought was interesting was take pictures of other orbiters and past landers on the Mars surface. The goal of these types of photos was to place the landers into a geological context, which helps scientists to understand the results these landers have returned. The Mars Global Surveyor had taken images of Viking Lander 1, Viking Lander 2, Mars Pathfinder, and both Mars Exploration Rovers, Opportunity and Spirit.

It is even possible that the Mars Global Surveyor has found the location of the Mars Polar Lander, which was a failed mission that lost contact with Earth in December of 1999.

Images from the Mars Global Surveyor are available for viewing on Science on a Sphere at the Science Musuem of Minnesota.

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