US space agency NASA has beefed up the process of monitoring the orbit paths of its own MAVEN, India’s Mangalyaan, European Mars Express, its own old redundant spacecrafts which are orbiting Mars to avoid collision after a January 2015 incident.
On Jan. 3, 2015, it was found that two weeks later, MAVEN and MRO (both NASA missions) could come within about two miles (3 km) of each other, which was alarming. Although that was a Saturday, automatic messages were sent out to the teams operating the orbiters to avoid collision.
Now that five Mars orbiters are circling the Red Planet, with NASA’s Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) and India’s MoM joined last September the already present 2003 Mars Express from the European Space Agency and two old NASA missions — the 2001 Mars Odyssey and the 2006 Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO).
With an enhanced collision-avoidance process, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) of California is now tracking the location of NASA’s Mars Global Surveyor, a 1997 orbiter that is likely to pose danger despite not being in operation.
Unlike more than 1,000 orbiting spacecraft around the Earth, Mars has only 5 and the traffic management should be much less complex. Moreover, all the five, including India’s MoM, use NASA’s communication and tracking services called Deep Space Network, managed at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). Since this brings trajectory information together, NASA engineers can run computer projections of the future trajectories in weeks ahead and prepare for the emergency, if ever required, said JPL.
NASA’s MAVEN reached Mars on September 21, 2014, to study the upper atmosphere and its orbit is an elongated one , sometimes farther from Mars than NASA’s other orbiters and sometimes closer to Mars. Even ESA and India’s MoM orbiters fly in elangated orbit.
Since there is a possibility of collision, NASA’s JPL is monitoring the positions of both ESA and India’s orbiters. In case of any projection of close shave, JPL will inform the ISRO or ESA in advance to avoid the situation occurred on New Year’s weekend in 2015.
“Previously, collision avoidance was coordinated between the Odyssey and MRO navigation teams,” said Robert Shotwell, Mars Program chief engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
Ruling out any collisions in near future, he said there was less of a possibility as MAVEN’s is highly elliptical orbit, crossing the altitudes of other orbits. “We track all the orbiters much more closely now. There’s still a low probability of needing a maneuver, but it’s something we need to manage.”