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Meet the orbiters that help rovers on Mars talk to Earth

Reference: CTV News

While robotic rovers may explore the surface of Mars on behalf of humans who can't safely land there yet, they aren't alone.

A fleet of orbiters circling the planet act as dual-purpose workhorses, relaying back data and images from the surface missions to Earth while studying various aspects of the planet.

Their mapping capabilities have allowed NASA mission teams to select intriguing landing sites, and their cameras and instruments can keep watch on surface missions and even warn of global dust storms.

When NASA's Perseverance rover lands on Mars on February 18, it will be the most sophisticated robotic explorer yet to venture across the Martian surface. The rover will search for signs of ancient life at the site of Jezero Crater, where a river delta and lake existed 3.9 billion years ago.

The rover will regularly talk to orbiters that swing around Mars, primarily NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, or MRO. This orbiter, which arrived at Mars in 2006, will act as the main communications relay to send back data and images gathered by the rover.

Orbiters like MRO and MAVEN, or Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN, will help us know when the Perseverance rover lands next week and receive any of the first photos and sounds -- since this newest rover has two microphones -- it sends our way.

These are just two of the orbiters currently exploring Mars, which also include NASA's 2001 Mars Odyssey orbiter and the European Space Agency's Mars Express orbiter and ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter, a collaboration between ESA and Roscosmos, Russia's space agency. Earlier this week, they were joined by the United Arab Emirates' Hope Probe and China's Tianwen-1 orbiter, with the latter planning to land a rover on the Martian surface later this year.

These orbiters, along with all of the other missions currently exploring our solar system, send back information through NASA's Deep Space Network. This "invisible network" of communications relayed through space reaches three ground-based giant radio antennas equidistant from one another.

They are located near Madrid in Spain, Canberra in Australia and Goldstone, near Barstow, California. The placement of each giant dish allows for constant contact with space missions as Earth turns.

The Deep Space Network allows for communications with spacecraft as well as tracking their location -- all of which will be imperative during Perseverance's landing on Mars and its mission in the following years.

The orbiters aren't just there to help relay information from the InSight lander, the Curiosity rover and the upcoming Perseverance rover. These spacecraft carry suites of instruments and cameras that have made remarkable discoveries about Mars and laid the foundation for future exploration... Read More