Relay Test: NASA’s Martian Rovers Report Back To Earth Via The European Orbiter

First Posted: Dec 01, 2016 03:30 AM EST

In the first relay test of a NASA radio aboard Europe's new Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO), each of the space agency's Martian rovers reported back to Earth last week.

One of the twins Electra radios on the orbiter received the transmissions from NASA rovers, Opportunity and Curiosity, on Nov. 22. The TGO/Exomars was put into orbit by the European Space Agency (ESA) and Russia's Roscosmos and it is carrying NASA's twin radios, allowing it to receive signals from the two rovers.

The main radio of the TGO for communications relayed the data received by Electra to Earth. This event marks the strengthening of the international communications supporting various projects geared toward exploring the Red Planet.

"The arrival of ESA's Trace Gas Orbiter at Mars, with its NASA-provided Electra relay payload on board, represents a significant step forward in our Mars relay capabilities," Chad Edwards, manager of the Mars Relay Network Office within the Mars Exploration Program at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said in a press release by NASA.

"In concert with our three existing NASA orbiters and ESA's earlier Mars Express orbiter, we now have a truly international Mars relay network that will greatly increase the amount of data that future Mars landers and rovers can return from the surface of the Red Planet," he added.

The ESA's ExoMars/Trace Gas Orbiter landed on the red planet on Oct. 19. Its first orbit shape is highly elliptical, which ranges from as far as 60,000 miles above the surface to less than 200 miles. It takes about 4.2 days to complete each loop, but eventually, in a little over a year, the spacecraft will have a near-circular path around 250 miles above the ground, Forbes reports.

During this time, the TGO's relay capability is expected to be used frequently, in the hopes to support Mars rover operations that will happen soon.

Relay of information from Mars' surface craft to Mars orbiters, then from the Mars orbiters to Earth, could pave way for space agencies to receive more data regarding surface missions, NASA added.

"We already have almost 13 years' experience using ESA's Mars Express as an on-call backup for data relay from active Mars rovers, and TGO will greatly expand this to routine science-data relay," Michel Denis, TGO flight director at ESA's European Space Operations Centre, said.

"In 2020, TGO will extend this relay support to ESA's ExoMars rover and the Russian Surface Platform, an important capability together with its science mission that enhances the international data network at Mars," he added.

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