NASA Spacecraft Avoids Very Embarrassing Collision With Mars' Moon

Rodiano Bonacci
Marzo 6, 2017

A huge disaster was narrowly prevented by NASA engineers, who discovered after running calculations that the MAVEN spacecraft, a critical asset that is now orbiting Mars, was on a collision course with the Red Planet's irregularly shaped moon Phobos, necessitating an evasive maneuver. It managed to escape the collision after it was forced to perform a previously unplanned maneuver this week.

MARVEN or The Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN craft have been orbiting the Red Planet for about two years, studying the ionosphere and upper atmosphere of the planet. The acceleration pushed the velocity of MAVEN by 0.4 meters per second, which was enough to dodge past the moon.

This is the first time MAVEN has ever had to perform a maneuver of this kind to avoid Phobos. This is the first time that MAVEN has had to make a course correction to avoid colliding with Phobos. However, even when it seems meaningless, this speed increase is the reason why the MAVEN will not crash into the moon, as the spacecraft will fail the moon orbit by 2.5 minutes.

Considering the size of Mars' Phobos, which was created to be larger than the actual moon to be conservative, they indicated an increased risk of colliding if specialists would not have taken action in time. When the orbits cross, the objects have the possibility of colliding if they arrive at that intersection at the same time.

The Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) monitors the potential for such collisions and informed the MAVEN team to take evasive action.

Without the tweak, MAVEN and the small, lumpy moon would have reached the same point in space within seven seconds of one another next Monday, March 6.

"Kudos to the JPL navigation and tracking teams for watching out for possible collisions every day of the year, and to the MAVEN spacecraft team for carrying out the maneuver flawlessly", said MAVEN Principal Investigator Bruce Jakosky of the University of Colorado in Boulder. The agency also has its Deep Space Network, which is a group of antennas located in various parts of the world - California, Spain, and Australia - that provides tracking services to orbiters from multiple space agencies, including NASA itself and ESA.

With the growing importance of the above systems and the fact that MAVEN had had such a close call with the Martian moon, it's safe to say that this week's maneuver may be followed by more in the future.

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