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Mars Climate Orbiter
Doppler Plot

The doppler plot below presents the velocity change of the Mars Climate Orbiter spacecraft. This velocity change is measured as a "Doppler shift." The Doppler shift of a radio signal sent by the spacecraft is proportional to the line-of-sight (direction from the Earth to the spacecraft) or Earthline velocity of the spacecraft. The Doppler shift is a frequency shift measured in Hertz (Hz).

The gravity of Mars changes the velocity (magnitude and direction) of the spacecraft, and this change in velocity shows up as a Doppler shift of the radio signal sent from the spacecraft.

Most people are familiar with the phenomenon of a car horn or train whistle changing its frequency as it moves towards or away from them. Electromagnetic radiation (e.g. light waves or radio signals) also experience this effect. The size of the frequency shift, or "Doppler shift," depends on how fast the light source is moving relative to the observer. Astronomers often refer to the "redshift" and "blueshift" of visible light, where the light from an object coming towards us is shifted to the blue end of the spectrum (higher frequencies), and light from an object moving away is shifted towards the red (lower frequencies).

Mars Climate Orbiter commmunicates with controllers on the ground by radio signal. Ground controllers know the frequency of the signal that is transmitted from the spacecraft. However, since the spacecraft is always moving away from or towards us, the transimitted signal is being Doppler shifted to a different frequency. Engineers then compute the Doppler shift by comparing the frequency received on the ground to the known transmitted frequency. It is then straightforward to find the velocity change that would cause the resulting Doppler shift. (Note that this gives us only the line-of-sight velocity.) Again, the frequency shift is measured in Hertz (Hz).


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