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NASA deploys system to avoid traffic jams between satellites orbiting Mars


Five active spacecrafts are now orbiting the Red Planet, including one from India, leaving NASA with no option but to beef up traffic monitoring, communication and manoeuvre planning to ensure that Mars orbiters do not collide with one another.NASA in July 2015 beefed up its enhanced collision-avoidance system with an aim to ensure that Mars orbiters do not approach each other too closely. The system involves process of traffic monitoring, communication and maneuver planning.

The step was taken after addition of two new spacecraft, namely NASA's Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) and India's Mars Orbiter Mission (Mangalyaan), to orbit the Mars has gone up to five.The new formal collision-avoidance process for Mars is part of NASA's Multi-Mission Automated Deep-Space Conjunction Assessment Process. A side benefit of it is that information about when two orbiters will be near each other -- though safely apart -- could be used for planning coordinated science observations. The pair could look at some part of Mars or its atmosphere from essentially the same point of view simultaneously with complementary instruments.

"MAVEN's highly elliptical orbit, crossing the altitudes of other orbits, changes the probability that someone will need to do a collision-avoidance manoeuvre. We track all the orbiters much more closely now." MAVEN, which reached Mars on September 21, 2014, studies the upper atmosphere. It flies on an elongated orbit, sometimes farther from Mars than NASA's other orbiters and sometimes closer to Mars, so it crosses altitudes occupied by those orbiters.

All five active Mars orbiters use the communication and tracking services of NASA's Deep Space Network, which is managed at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). This brings trajectory information together, and engineers can run computer projections of future trajectories out to a few weeks ahead for comparisons.