Some Problems You Just Can’t Engineer Around
Kyle Maxey posted on July 25, 2017 |
This diagram illustrates the positions of Mars, Earth and the sun during a period that occurs approximately every 26 months, when Mars passes almost directly behind the sun from Earth's perspective. (Image courtesy of NASA/JPL-Caltech.)
This diagram illustrates the positions of Mars, Earth and the sun during a period that occurs approximately every 26 months, when Mars passes almost directly behind the sun from Earth's perspective. (Image courtesy of NASA/JPL-Caltech.)
Engineers do a lot of good for the world, but sometimes there are problems that they just can’t solve. Admittedly these problems are rare and hopefully temporary (faster than light travel, I’m looking at you), but other times these issues can be impossible to get around, which NASA is currently experiencing in a big way.

According to the US space agency, between July 22 and August 1, Mars will be almost directly behind the sun, making it nearly impossible to communicate between the Earth and the Red Planet. That’s not good for researchers working with the rovers puttering around the Mars’ surface. In fact, out of an abundance of caution, NASA has shut down all communication with the rovers just to make sure that no message would be scrambled and send a rover careening off of Olympus Mons.

“Out of caution, we won't talk to our Mars assets during that period because we expect significant degradation in the communication link, and we don't want to take a chance that one of our spacecraft would act on a corrupted command," said Chad Edwards, manager of the Mars Relay Network Office at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California.

But have no fear: just because NASA is pulling comms doesn’t mean that the rovers will be loafing about. All commands that were already sent to the rovers will be executed dutifully.

“The vehicles will stay active, carrying out commands sent in advance," said Mars Program Chief Engineer Hoppy Price, of JPL. "Orbiters will be making their science observations and transmitting data. The rovers won't be driving, but observations and measurements will continue."

Still, NASA anticipates that some of the data being returned will be corrupted over the Sun’s 11-day transit. But even those loses will pose a negligible slight when compared to the amount of science that’s been provided by Curiosity and its fellow bots.

So, it appears that even the greatest engineers on the planet, those that can build machines that fly across the solar system and operate well beyond their lifetimes, can find problems that just don’t have a good solution.

At least for now.

Arguably, there’s a pretty straightforward solution to this challenge, assuming humans lived on other planets. If that were the case, we’d likely be able to relay messages from world to world, but, sadly, we’re still limited to just this one. Until we get off this planet, every now and they the Sun is going to get in our way. But I guess with everything else its done for us, we should probably cut it some slack. 

For a staggering but potentially more tractable engineering challenge, check out our feature on Asteroid Mining.

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