NASA’s Mars Atmosphere and Variable Evolution (MAVEN) spacecraft has been out of action for most of the year, but due to a very clever hack, the probe is now using stars to navigate around the Red Planet.
The probe It’s been in safe mode since February, but NASA engineers solved the problem by loading new software onto the spacecraft. Maven resumed its science and relay operations on May 28, after recovering from extended safe mode, according to to NASA. “The team really stepped up to meet an existential threat,” Rich Burns, MAVEN project manager at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, said in a statement.
MAVEN was launched in November 2013, and entered orbit around Mars in September 2014 with the goal of examining the planet for clues as to why it lost so much of its atmosphere during its early history. Understanding the process by which Mars loses massive amounts of its atmosphere is crucial to determining whether the Red Planet was ever habitable, as it likely hosted some form of life billions of years ago.
The mission was going well, with the probe doing well in Mars orbit and with NASA extending the spacecraft’s mission duration on five different occasions. But on February 22, the team lost contact with the spacecraft.
Here’s what happened to the old orbiter: MAVEN had a problem with inertial measurement units (IMUs), which measure a spacecraft’s rotation to determine its position in space, or its ability to maintain or change its orientation relative to where it wants to go. There are two IMUs on the spacecraft, a primary and a backup unit. When contact with MAVEN was restored, the ground team found the spacecraft to be confused and unable to determine its position from either IMU.
The spacecraft then entered an ominous safe mode, causing it to float in space while scientific operations were pending. With Maven’s hibernation, the team of engineers behind the mission worked to develop a system that would allow the spacecraft to navigate, not using its IMUs, but using stars as fixed reference points. The team was already working on developing this all-star navigation software, but it wasn’t supposed to be ready before October. However, due to the difficult situation, the spacecraft needed the help of the stars sooner rather than later.
“By the time we were done on the backup computer, the spacecraft had been trying to fix the problem with IMU-1 for 78 minutes,” Lockheed Martin Maven team leader Michael Haggard said in a statement. “We ended up in IMU-2, and the pressure was on to set up all-stellar mode as quickly as possible.”
The star navigation system – five months ahead of schedule – was ready to go. On April 19, the team hooked up the software to the spacecraft, turned off the backup IMU, and restarted the MAVEN science instruments. MAVEN, two days after returning to work, was able to detect a coronal mass from the Sun that affected Mars.
This was MAVEN’s second mission in safe mode, and the first time it occurred so soon after its science instruments were turned on in 2014, as a result of flaw Which forced him to shut down for about a week. Looking to the future, the spacecraft has enough fuel to last into 2030, and the backup IMU is still there in case Maven needs it from time to time.