When two spacecraft are sent on their long voyage to Mars, one is far from home

From London, also from New York, and everything that is about to be announced. NASA’s Messenger spacecraft was still orbiting Mercury in March of 2011 when it survived an epic and tense six-month plunge…

When two spacecraft are sent on their long voyage to Mars, one is far from home

From London, also from New York, and everything that is about to be announced.

NASA’s Messenger spacecraft was still orbiting Mercury in March of 2011 when it survived an epic and tense six-month plunge back to Earth, “for the sake of science,” as the Washington Post pointed out. The spacecraft had ceased communicating with Earth — something Mission Control at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland, had to cope with at every turn. The data from Messenger was incredibly important to the objective of the mission to study the planet Mercury, and its application to interpreting observations from human missions is widely accepted as one of the outstanding, scientific achievements of the 20th century.

But despite the concern and stress of Mission Control in the immediate aftermath of Messenger’s passing, NASA soon figured out how to send Messenger data again. In September of 2012, the Juno spacecraft fired its engines to reach a region of space known as the “perihelion” in its approach to Jupiter. Mission Control was able to initiate the burn, which wasn’t an exact re-enactment of the dip Messenger had made a few years earlier, but which enabled Juno to reach perihelion and obtain more accurate imaging of the Jovian system. These images will allow NASA to use the same techniques to study planetary atmospheres in the coming months, as Juno zooms closer and closer to Jupiter.

Now, with the passing of Messenger, a third spacecraft — the Deep Space Climate Observatory, or DSCOVR — is about to fly out of Earth’s orbit and begin to test laser communications with Earth. DSCOVR, which is a joint project between NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, is projected to reach an altitude of about 230 miles above Earth, roughly the same position the Messenger spacecraft was in when it hit Earth’s atmosphere. It will use the energy of laser beams to bounce data back to Earth on a wavelength of 420 billionths of a meter. The American space agency has been testing similar communications tools with other nations’ satellites in an effort to expand space coverage.

“DSCOVR will be the first space mission to utilize the extreme, almost supernatural power of laser communications to connect spacecraft in near-earth orbits,” Dr. Matthew Tiscareno, the program manager for the DSCOVR mission, told Space.com.

The DSCOVR mission, which NASA will be announcing on Wednesday, could potentially last for about two years. “It’s not that we’re headed to the sun for this mission,” Tiscareno told Space.com. “We’re going to Venus.” And he believes the science payload of the mission will have a long life, even decades down the road.

“We’re just getting started on this. We’ve only done a few tests of these communications capabilities so far,” Tiscareno said. “We’re still evaluating the functionality of the transmit channel and the data uplink. We know that about two years will pass. I think the science can be phenomenal for 20 years from now.”

Read the full story at Space.com.

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