The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, which was launched in 2005 and has been orbiting Mars since 2006, was placed on a "precautionary standby mode," which signals that there might be a bit of trouble with the over-a-decade-old spacecraft.
What exactly is the problem with NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, and is it in danger of being lost in space forever?
What's Wrong With The NASA Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter
According to an official statement from NASA, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter placed itself in a "precautionary standby mode" because the spacecraft sensed an unexpectedly low battery voltage.
NASA explains that the spacecraft runs on both solar power and a pair of rechargeable nickel-hydrogen batteries, with the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter depending on the latter whenever it is in the shadow of the Red Planet. The two power sources are used together and maintain almost identical charges.
However, after detecting low battery voltage, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter suspended its scientific observations and service as a communications relay. The spacecraft, however, remained in constant communication with NASA and was able to maintain safe and stable levels of power and temperature.
The normal battery voltage has now been restored, but NASA is still monitoring the spacecraft to make sure that everything is really back to normal. If everything goes well, the service of the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter as a relay will be restored in about a week, followed by the resumption of scientific observations.
Achievements of NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter
The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter has been delivering data from the Red Planet for 12 years, more than any other mission sent to Mars.
The spacecraft, which celebrated its 10th anniversary of being in space in 2015, can observe features on the surface of Mars that are as small as a table. The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter also relays data between the small rovers and landers that have been released on Mars and the controllers back on Earth.
In March 2017, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter completed its 50,000th orbit of the Red Planet. Back then, mission officials from NASA said that the spacecraft was still working perfectly, even after sending over 300 terabits of scientific data collected from Mars to Earth.
One of its more recent discoveries was a dark spot on the surface of Mars, which scientists determined was a deep hole that led to an underground cavern. Researchers believe that a cave that goes deep enough into the Red Planet may support warmer temperatures and stable forms of liquid water. This could mean that life may exist inside these Martian holes, or that humans may one day live inside them.
Hopefully, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter solves its issues so that it can keep sending back valuable information on the Red Planet.