Spaceflight Insider

Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter in precautionary standby mode

Artist's depiction of NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter above the Red Planet. Image Credit: James Vaughan / SpaceFlight Insider

Artist’s depiction of NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter above the Red Planet. Image Credit: James Vaughan / SpaceFlight Insider

NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) placed itself into a precautionary standby mode after experiencing a sudden low battery voltage on February 15. 

In orbit around Mars since March 10, 2006, the orbiter relays data from the rovers on the Martian surface while conducting its own scientific studies.

Both of these functions have been temporarily suspended while mission scientists work at diagnosing the cause of the voltage drop in the spacecraft’s pair of nickel-hydrogen batteries.

MRO uses a combination of solar and battery power, relying on the latter when it flies into Mars’ shadow and loses access to sunlight. During normal operations, both power sources operate together, keeping the same charge. Mission scientists emphasize MRO‘s power levels and temperatures are stable, and the orbiter continues to be in regular contact with Earth.

“We’re in the diagnostic state, to better understand the behavior of the batteries and ways to give ourselves more options for managing them in the future,” said MRO Project Manager Dan Johnston of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California. JPL manages the mission for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate.

Battery voltage has since been brought back to normal levels. While mission scientists and engineers continue their diagnostic work, MRO is being continuously monitored.

Since entering into Mars orbit, MRO has returned more than 317 terabits of data, an amount that exceeds the total data sent back by all other interplanetary missions combined.

After meeting all the science goals of its two-year primary mission, MRO had its mission extended five times, most recently in early 2016. Each extension has resulted in uncovering and returning more science data. Over nearly 12 years, the MRO mission team has studied seasonal and other long-term changes on the Red Planet and is now searching for future missions’ landing sites.

“We will restore MRO’s service as a relay for other missions as soon as we can do so with confidence in spacecraft safety–likely in about a week. After that, we will resume science observations,” Johnston noted.




Laurel Kornfeld is an amateur astronomer and freelance writer from Highland Park, NJ, who enjoys writing about astronomy and planetary science. She studied journalism at Douglass College, Rutgers University, and earned a Graduate Certificate of Science from Swinburne University’s Astronomy Online program. Her writings have been published online in The Atlantic, Astronomy magazine’s guest blog section, the UK Space Conference, the 2009 IAU General Assembly newspaper, The Space Reporter, and newsletters of various astronomy clubs. She is a member of the Cranford, NJ-based Amateur Astronomers, Inc. Especially interested in the outer solar system, Laurel gave a brief presentation at the 2008 Great Planet Debate held at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab in Laurel, MD.

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