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Mars' spacecraft go on summer vacation

Mars seen by the Hubble Space Telescope. Photo: NASA/ESA/STScI
Mars seen by the Hubble Space Telescope. Photo: NASA/ESA/STScI

The robots responsible for exploring Mars from the surface and orbit are about to go on holiday.

The big picture: Every 2 years, Mars and Earth reach a point in their orbits known as solar conjunction, when the 2 planets are on opposite sides of the Sun, making communications more difficult.

  • Scientists on the ground will stop sending commands to the spacecraft in the vicinity of the red planet from Aug. 28 to Sept. 7, according to NASA.

Details: The Curiosity rover won't drive during the blackout, and the agency's InSight lander will stop moving its robotic arm, NASA said.

  • The Odyssey orbiter, Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and MAVEN orbiter will all continue circling the planet without new instructions from Earth.
  • Other spacecraft orbiting Mars like the European Space Agency's ExoMars orbiter, will also have some interruptions during the next few weeks.

Yes, but: The rovers and orbiters won't just be resting on their laurels during conjunction.

  • MAVEN will still collect science data, and the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and Odyssey will be in touch with the immobile Curiosity and InSight.
  • Odyssey will also attempt to send some data collected from the spacecraft on the planet's surface back to Earth before the end of conjunction.

The bottom line: Those pretty Mars photos we're used to seeing every few days are going to slow down for a while, but come mid-September, we should all expect to get our weekly fix of red planet images again.