How Does NASA Direct Traffic Above Mars?

posted: 05/05/15
by: Discovery.com Staff
Mars MAVEN orbiter
NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center

It's getting awfully crowded in space.

Now that a record five spacecraft are actively orbiting Mars, NASA and other space agencies must play air traffic controller to prevent a mid-orbit collision above Mars.

Presently, NASA has four orbits around Mars: MAVEN, Mars Odyssey, Mars Reconnaissance and the defunct (yet still orbiting) Mars Global Surveyor. India's Mars Orbiter Mission and the European Space Agency's Mars Express are also in residence around the Red Planet.

Despite the heavy traffic, NASA's Robert Shotwell calls the probability of a collision 'low'; nonetheless, the agency's Deep Space Network compiles trajectory information for each spacecraft to closely track the orbit of each spacecraft and prevent collisions.

"It's a monitoring function to anticipate when traffic will get heavy," added Joseph Guinn, of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which manages the Deep Space Network. "When two spacecraft are predicted to come too close to one another, we give people a heads-up in advance so the project teams can start coordinating about whether any maneuvers are needed."

It could be worse: there are an estimated 1,000 active orbiting spacecraft above Earth -- in addition to an indeterminate amount of space junk and a rogue Russian supply mission.

Read more from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory

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