A U.S. spacecraft approached Mars to act as a telecommunications relay for Mars landing vehicles and rovers after a two-month orbit adjustment that ended Friday.
The four-year-old spacecraft called Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) gradually slowed by aerofraqueo, a process that takes advantage of the atmosphere of the Martian atmosphere to impose a small amount of resistance on the spacecraft, according to NASA.
“It’s like applying brakes on a car, but instead of brake pads, we use the atmosphere of Mars,” said Stuart Demcak, the navigation team leader at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
The lowest altitude of the spacecraft’s orbit dropped from 151 km to about 132 km above the Martian surface. At this altitude, the atmosphere is dense enough to provide a small amount of resistance in the spacecraft to reduce it.
In addition, the highest point in orbit was reduced from approximately 6,050 km to approximately 4,570 km, improving MAVEN’s availability to support relay communications with NASA landers on the surface of Mars. It allowed the MAVEN orbiter to circulate the Red Planet more frequently and thus communicate with Mars rovers more frequently.
The data transmission satellite will work with NASA’s Mars 2020 rover to be launched next year.
As long as it does not perform retransmission communications, MAVEN will continue to study the structure and composition of Mars’ upper atmosphere.
The MAVEN, launched in November 2013, has completed its two-year mission in space, but its fuel allows it to last until 2030, according to NASA.