NASA Spacecraft Fires Thrusters to Avoid Collision with Martian Moon

Elizabeth Williams
March 4, 2017

This is the first collision avoidance maneuver that the MAVEN spacecraft has performed at Mars to steer clear of Phobos.

The MAVEN spacecraft - short for Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN - has been orbiting Mars for more than two years, monitoring the Red Planet's atmosphere. But it had to make an unexpected maneuver this week as it came face to face with an unlikely foe-a Martian moon named Phobos.

On Feb.28, the MAVEN spacecraft had to be moved from its original course in order to avoid a collision with one of Mars' moon - Phobos. The acceleration pushed the velocity of MAVEN by 0.4 meters per second, which was enough to dodge past the moon. Phobos has earned a reputation for being a "cursed" moon, as two Soviet missions to it in the late 1980s both failed as well. However, the spacecraft was forced to perform an emergency maneuver, which intrigued the engineers working at NASA.

MAVEN is in an egg-shaped orbit that regularly crosses the paths of other science satellites and of Phobos, which circles just 6,000 miles above the Martian surface, closer than any other known moon to a planet in the solar system. These possibilities increase the risk of a collision that could destroy the spacecraft and with it years of investigations.

NASA Spacecraft Fires Thrusters to Avoid Collision with Martian Moon

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

The team of investigators knew the possibility of the collision a week earlier, and this allowed the preparation of a mechanism to avoid it.

If the members of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory were unable to alert NASA about the collision, it was likely that Phobos and MAVEN would have reached their orbital crossing point within 7 seconds of each other.

The principal investigator of MAVEN is from the University of Colorado's Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics, Boulder.

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