Radio Telescopes to Keep Sharp Eye on Mars Lander

May 23, 2008
Radio Telescopes to Keep Sharp Eye on Mars Lander
Robert C. Byrd Green Bank Telescope. CREDIT: NRAO/AUI/NSF

As NASA's Phoenix Mars Lander descends through the Red Planet's atmosphere toward its landing on May 25, its progress will be scrutinized by radio telescopes from the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO). At NRAO control rooms in Green Bank, West Virginia, and Socorro, New Mexico, scientists, engineers and technicians will be tracking the faint signal from the lander, 171 million miles from Earth.

To make a safe landing, Phoenix must make a risky descent, slowing down from nearly 13,000 mph at the top of the Martian atmosphere to only 5 mph in the final seconds before touchdown. NASA officials point out that fewer than half of all Mars landing missions have been successful, but the scientific rewards of success are worth the risk.

Major events in the spacecraft's atmospheric entry, descent and landing will be marked by changes in the Doppler Shift in the frequency of the vehicle's radio signal. Doppler Shift is the change in frequency caused by relative motion between the transmitter and receiver.

At Green Bank, NRAO and NASA personnel will use the giant Robert C. Byrd Green Bank Telescope (GBT) to follow the Doppler changes and verify that the descent is going as planned. The radio signal from Phoenix is designed to be received by other spacecraft in Mars orbit, then relayed to Earth. However, the GBT, a dish antenna with more than two acres of collecting surface and highly-sensitive receivers, can directly receive the transmissions from Phoenix.

"We'll see the frequency change as Phoenix slows down in the Martian atmosphere, then there will be a big change when the parachute deploys," said NRAO astronomer Frank Ghigo. When the spacecraft's rocket thrusters slow it down for its final, gentle touchdown, its radio frequency will stabilize, Ghigo said.

"We'll have confirmation of these major events through our direct reception several seconds earlier than the controllers at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory will get the relayed information," Ghigo added.

In Socorro, scientists will collect signals from Phoenix with antennas of the continent-wide Very Long Baseline Array (VLBA), which produces the sharpest images of any astronomical instrument in existence. They will use the VLBA's ability to mark the position of objects in the sky with pinpoint precision to reconstruct the craft's location relative to other spacecraft at Mars to within about 100 feet, despite its great distance from Earth.

The VLBA observations will demonstrate NRAO's capability to provide extremely precise measurements of spacecraft positions. This capability may be used to improve the navigational accuracy of future interplanetary missions.

NRAO telescopes have contributed to the success of several previous space missions.

In 1989, the Very Large Array (VLA) received signals from the Voyager 2 spacecraft as it flew by the distant planet Neptune. The combined collecting area of the 27 VLA antennas and their sensitive receivers made possible a higher data-transmission rate from the spacecraft, thus enabling scientists to obtain more images of Neptune, its rings, and its moons.

In 1995, the VLA captured signals from the Galileo spaccraft's probe as the probe dived into the giant planet Jupiter's atmosphere. Like Phoenix, the Galileo probe was designed to send its information to the main spacecraft, which would then relay the signal to Earth. However, the VLA's direct reception of the probe's signal measured the Doppler shift in the signal's frequency and made measurements of Jovian wind speeds 10 times more accurate than they otherwise would have been.

In 2005, the GBT and the VLBA snagged the signal from the Huygens probe as it descended into the atmosphere of Saturn's moon Titan. The Doppler measurements of wind speeds made by NRAO and other radio telescopes provided the only wind data from the mission, because of a malfunction in communication between Huygens and its "mother ship" Cassini.

The National Radio Astronomy Observatory is a facility of the National Science Foundation, operated under cooperative agreement by Associated Universities, Inc.

Source: National Radio Astronomy Observatory

Explore further: SDO captures images of two mid-level flares

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Scientific instruments of Rosetta's Philae lander

Sep 23, 2014

When traveling to far off lands, one packs carefully. What you carry must be comprehensive but not so much that it is a burden. And once you arrive, you must be prepared to do something extraordinary to make ...

From recession's wake, education innovation blooms

Aug 04, 2013

On a warm spring evening, hundreds of investment bankers, venture capitalists and geeky tech entrepreneurs gathered near the pool of the Phoenician, a luxury resort outside Phoenix. The occasion? A high-profile ...

Fostering Curiosity: Mars Express relays rocky images

Nov 27, 2012

(Phys.org)—For the first time, ESA's Mars orbiter has relayed scientific data from NASA's Curiosity rover on the Red Planet's surface. The data included detailed images of 'Rocknest3' and were received ...

Up, up and away for Mars

Jun 10, 2011

In April, NASA’s Spaceward Bound project returned to Zzyzx, California, in the Mojave Desert. Spaceward Bound brings together primary-grade science teachers with scientists to conduct astrobiology research ...

Recommended for you

SDO captures images of two mid-level flares

Dec 19, 2014

The sun emitted a mid-level flare on Dec. 18, 2014, at 4:58 p.m. EST. NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory, which watches the sun constantly, captured an image of the event. Solar flares are powerful bursts ...

Why is Venus so horrible?

Dec 19, 2014

Venus sucks. Seriously, it's the worst. The global temperature is as hot as an oven, the atmospheric pressure is 90 times Earth, and it rains sulfuric acid. Every part of the surface of Venus would kill you ...

Image: Christmas wrapping the Sentinel-3A antenna

Dec 19, 2014

The moment a team of technicians, gowned like hospital surgeons, wraps the Sentinel-3A radar altimeter in multilayer insulation to protect it from the temperature extremes found in Earth orbit.

Video: Flying over Becquerel

Dec 19, 2014

This latest release from the camera on ESA's Mars Express is a simulated flight over the Becquerel crater, showing large-scale deposits of sedimentary material.

User comments : 0

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.