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Spacecraft Converge on Mars

Issue of life on the planet could be resolved

3 min read

The mystery of whether there is or has been life on Mars may be clarified or even resolved soon, with four new spacecraft--two from the European Space Agency (ESA) and two from NASA--arriving at the planet. They join two NASA probes already in orbit, though one of them--Odyssey--had a radiation sensor knocked out by the unusually intense solar storms in October. A fifth spacecraft, Japan's Nozomi, suffered problems that were aggravated by the solar activity and it will probably miss Mars altogether.

Cute but Smart: One of the NASA rovers expected to land on Mars this month, in an artist's conception.

Such mishaps are a reminder of the "Mars curse" that has seemed to dog so many attempts to reach the red planet. No doubt the curse was on the minds of European flight controllers as Beagle 2 approached the planet in hopes of making a safe landing on 25 December.

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Two men fix metal rods to a gold-foiled satellite component in a warehouse/clean room environment

Technicians at Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems facilities in Redondo Beach, Calif., work on a mockup of the JWST spacecraft bus—home of the observatory’s power, flight, data, and communications systems.

NASA

For a deep dive into the engineering behind the James Webb Space Telescope, see our collection of posts here.

When the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) reveals its first images on 12 July, they will be the by-product of carefully crafted mirrors and scientific instruments. But all of its data-collecting prowess would be moot without the spacecraft’s communications subsystem.

The Webb’s comms aren’t flashy. Rather, the data and communication systems are designed to be incredibly, unquestionably dependable and reliable. And while some aspects of them are relatively new—it’s the first mission to use Ka-band frequencies for such high data rates so far from Earth, for example—above all else, JWST’s comms provide the foundation upon which JWST’s scientific endeavors sit.

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