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Spotlight On Mars - Image
Hello, Earth! Hello, Mars!
December 19, 2008
This artist's rendition shows a glowing, yellow sun in the middle of the picture and Earth and Mars on opposite sides of it. Earth is connected to a blue circle showing its orbit; Mars is connected to a larger, reddish-brown circle that goes around both the Sun and Earth. The Sun and its plasma-filled halo, which is four or five times the diameter of the Sun, disrupt communications between the two planets.

NASA's Mars rovers are talking to Earth and Earth is talking to the rovers again after a two-week silence. About every 26 months, when Mars and Earth are on opposite sides of the Sun, the Sun blocks communication. This celestial event is known as solar conjunction.

To minimize the risk of anything going wrong, the rovers get a lighter workload. They collect only as much data as their computers can store and conserve energy in the event of a dust storm. On Earth, mission planners take vacation or catch up on other work. For example, this year they trained new team members to help communicate with the rovers.

Just because the rovers can't talk to Earth doesn't mean they don't work. Spirit monitored atmospheric dust; Opportunity studied the atmosphere and the chemistry of a small rock. Perhaps they had time to contemplate five years of exploration, a milestone they will reach in January!

Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

More about solar conjunction:
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