NASA has performed a collision avoidance manoeuver in order to stop one of the Martian satellites, MAVEN, from smashing into one of the Martian moons, Phobos, on March 6th.
If the trajectory was left unchanged, the MAVEN spacecraft would most likely collide with the small moon disintegrate upon impact. NASA, however, have been keeping a close eye on the trajectory and reserving fuel for a quick boost to move the craft into a safe path. This will be the first ever collision avoidance manoeuver performed by MAVEN.
The necessity of the maneuver highlights the challenge that NASA, and other space agencies with vested interests in Mars, face in the near future as the fleet of ships and satellites orbiting Mars is set to increase rapidly over the next decade. The MAVEN orbiter has been studying Mars for 3 years now and this is the first time that it has been faced with such an issue. The aim of the MAVEN mission is to further research the atmosphere of Mars and to try and understand why Mars lost most of it’s water.
The successful burn was completed on Feb 28th and changed the speed of the probe by 0.4 meters per second, which adjusted the trajectory as necessary to avoid disaster for the MAVEN team. This is the first time that we have had to move out of the way of Phobos.
Phobos orbits Mars at an altitude of around 6000 kilometers above the surface. Phobos is usually higher than most operational orbiters, unless they move into elliptical orbits where they skim the Martian atmosphere at the orbit’s lowest point. Phobos measures almost 30kilometers across.
“Kudos to the JPL navigation and tracking teams for watching out for possible collisions every day of the year, and to the MAVEN spacecraft team for carrying out the maneuver flawlessly,” Bruce Jakosky, MAVEN’s principal investigator at the University of Colorado in Boulder, said in a statement.
Several Mars missions are planned for the next few years including NASA’s Mars 2020 rover, the joint European-Russian ExoMars rover, China’s first Mars mission, India’s second Mars orbiter, the United Arab Emirates Hope orbiter, and SpaceX’s commercial Red Dragon lander, all scheduled to launch in 2020 and arrive at the red planet around February 2021.
“Those missions are going in, and I believe all of them would like to have coverage as they go into the Martian system to allow them to see what’s going on. That is a non-trivial request, given the types of mission and orbiters that we have, because they’re all coming in, time-wise, close to each other,” Li said in a meeting of the Mars Exploration Program Analysis Group. All these missions, potentially, will also require very detailed tracking in order to do the precision navigation to make sure they are entering orbit the right way. The month of February (2021), and a few weeks before that, will be extremely hectic, but we look forward to such things because of the science that will come after that.” Fuk Li – director of JPL’s Mars exploration directorate.