After three months in safe mode, NASA’s Maven spacecraft has been recovered

Since 2014, NASA’s Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN (MAVEN) mission has orbited Mars collecting data on its upper atmosphere, ionosphere, and interactions with the Sun and solar wind. In doing so, the mission showed how billions of years ago the Martian atmosphere was slowly stripped away by the solar wind. This caused Mars to undergo a major climate change, going from a warmer planet that had water flowing over its surface to the extremely frigid and parched place it is today.

In February, the mission encountered problems with its main inertial measurement unit (IMU) and entered safe mode. As of Saturday May 28, after the mission team successfully diagnosed the problem with these navigational instruments, MAVEN resumed normal science and relay operations. From now on, the satellite will use a system specially developed by the mission team to navigate by the stars. This could extend the scientific operations of the MAVEN mission (which has just been extended until 2024) into the next decade.

To determine its orientation in orbit around Mars, MAVEN’s IMUs measure the rotational speed of the spacecraft – IMU-1 is the main unit while IMU-2 is its backup. On Tuesday, February 22, the mission team lost contact with the spacecraft after performing a routine scheduled power cycle of the IMU-1. Once contact was restored, the spacecraft was unable to determine its attitude from the IMU and switched to its backup computer (which allowed it to get accurate readings from the IMU-2) .

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Artist’s impression of MAVEN orbiting Mars. Image Credit: NASA/GSFC

The spacecraft then entered “safe mode” and waited for further instructions from the ground. Shannon Curry, Principal Investigator of MAVEN at UC Berkeley, said in a recent NASA press release:

“This was a critical challenge for the mission, but through the work of our spacecraft and operations team, MAVEN will continue to produce important science data and function as a relay for surface assets until the end of the decade. I couldn’t be more proud of our team.

Already they were working on a stellar navigation mode that would allow MAVEN to navigate without IMUs. This is common practice with aging orbiters beginning to experience equipment issues and was originally scheduled to be implemented in October 2022 after the mission team detected anomalies in the IMU-1. and the IMU-2. Switching to an all-stellar navigation mode is common practice when dealing with aging orbiters and deteriorating navigation units. This incident forced the Lockheed Martin mission team to speed up software development since the IMU-2 was not expected to remain in service until October. Micheal Haggard, the Lockheed Martin MAVEN spacecraft crew chief, explained:

“This was a situation that no one had originally anticipated, but the spacecraft behaved as expected. By the time we ended up on the standby computer, the spacecraft had attempted to resolve the issue with the ‘IMU-1 for about 78 minutes. We ended up on IMU-2, and the pressure was on to get All-Stellar mode ready as soon as possible.

Artistic depiction of a solar storm hitting Mars and flushing ions from the planet’s upper atmosphere. Credits: NASA/GSFC

On April 19, five months ahead of schedule, the spacecraft team completed the software patch and linked it to MAVEN. Since the all-stellar mode had not previously been tested in flight, a series of tests were required to verify the all-stellar mode. The mission team also turned off the IMU-2 to preserve its remaining battery power, just in case it was needed again before the end of the mission. Once the uplink was complete, space and science teams restored MAVEN’s instruments to full operating mode. Says Rich Burns, the MAVEN project manager at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center:

“The team really tackled an existential threat. When we recognized in the fall that the IMU-2 was degrading, we knew we were going to have to shorten the timeline for all-stellar mode. The spacecraft team rose to the challenge, working under intense pressure after the anomaly.

A minor hiccup was the fact that the spacecraft had to be kept pointed at Earth until the mission team finished testing the all-stellar mode. As a result, MAVEN’s science instruments were not oriented as they would be during regular science operations throughout the shutdown period. However, this had a very limited effect on the mission, and some scientific data was still possible, such as the coronal mass ejection observed by MAVEN hitting the Mars atmosphere less than two days after the instruments were powered on.

MAVEN has continued to operate successfully since using its all-stellar mode, although the mission team will need to find long-term solutions (as there are certain times of the year when IMUs need to be used) . This will ensure that MAVEN can continue to operate throughout its extended mission and observe the most extreme conditions of the Martian atmosphere it has encountered so far. This will continue to provide insight into the process of atmospheric loss that caused Mars to cease to be a hotter, wetter, and potentially habitable planet.

The MAVEN mission will also continue to operate as a communications relay satellite, linking surface missions to Earth via NASA’s Deep Space Network (DSN).

Further reading: Nasa

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