NASA’s Mars MAVEN probe was on the verge of failure for three months

The mission team’s toughest obstacle early this year was meant to be a difficult three-hour briefing to NASA leadership regarding the MAVEN Mars orbiter’s future. However, just as the briefing was going well on Earth, the spaceship was having significant problems millions of miles away.

Shannon Curry, the newly appointed principal investigator for the MAVEN project, felt optimistic about the team’s efforts to make the case for the Mars mission to be extended for at least three more years when she concluded giving the briefing on that February day.

After then, her phone rang. Curry told, “We eventually finish the presentation, I switch everything back on, and the project manager contacts me instantly.  Now, I’m thinking he’s phoning to say, ‘Congrats, you accomplished it, you’re doing fantastic,’ and he’s like, ‘We’re in safe mode,'” she says.

A spacecraft in safe mode has encountered an issue it can’t fix on its own, therefore it has turned off everything it doesn’t require to survive until Earth engineers can examine the situation. Sometimes the answer is as simple as resetting an internet router on a galactic scale.

However, not this time.

“The safe mode incident was — catastrophic is an overstatement, but we were on the verge of losing the spacecraft,” Curry stated, adding that the incident was “very serious” and “frightening.” The timing was inconvenient because the crew planned to be celebrating the close of the 6-month mission extension campaign. “It was as though you were robbed of your breath. On the occasion of your birthday.”

Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN), was sent into orbit around Mars in 2014. Since then, the spaceship has not only examined the Martian atmosphere, as its name implies but has also served as a critical communications relay station for NASA’s Martian landers and rovers, that are unable to communicate directly with Earth.

NASA does not want the mission to terminate, and at the conclusion of the assessment procedure, which culminated in the arduous presentation, the agency permitted the mission to work for 3 more years. MAVEN, on the other hand, has spent upwards of 8 years in space, much longer than it was meant for, and one particular component is causing problems for the crew.

The spacecraft has two IMUs (inertial measurement units), on board: one primary copy, dubbed IMU-1, and a backup version, dubbed IMU-2. MAVEN’s attitude, or orientation in space, is maintained by whichever IMU the spacecraft is utilizing at the time. (Attitude is important because operations like solar panel charging and communication with Earth can’t happen effectively if a spaceship loses its attitude.)

Following concerns about IMU-1 faults in late 2017, the MAVEN crew switched the spaceship to its backup unit. However, the crew realized that the IMU-2 device was starting to wear out faster than predicted late last year. As a result, the team reverted the spaceship to its initial IMU-1 unit in early February.

Two weeks later, on February 22, the day of MAVEN’s mission renewal presentation, the spacecraft was unable to properly position itself using either IMU. “Both of our [IMUs] started indicating difficulties for separate reasons,” Curry explained. “We switched into safe mode since one of them had basically crashed, and the other was just losing a life.”

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