The Mars orbiter MAVAN, designed primarily to study Mars’s atmosphere, is now lowering its orbit as it shifts its primary function from science to communications between the Earth and the rovers on the surface.
A strong telecommunications antenna signal is not the only benefit of a tighter orbit. Coming in nearly 1,000 miles (about 1,500 kilometers) closer also will allow the MAVEN orbiter to circle Mars more frequently – 6.8 orbits per Earth day versus 5.3 previously – and thus communicate with the Mars rovers more frequently. While not conducting relay communications, MAVEN will continue to study the structure and composition of the upper atmosphere of Mars. “We’re planning a vigorous science mission far into the future,” Jakosky said.
In a sense, NASA here is finding a way to replace the Mars communications satellite that it wanted but was not able to get funded.