A decade or so ago, you pretty much had free rein to send a satellite or rover to the Red Planet and not have to worry about crashing into someone else’s gear. Now? NASA is having to put forth some effort to avoid Martian traffic jams.
With the relatively recent addition of addition of NASA's Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) spacecraft and India's Mangalyaan probe, there are a total of five operational Mars orbiters. That’s more than ever, so now NASA has to be careful to make sure they don’t accidentally crash in orbit. Which, after spending so much time and money to get something that deep into the solar system, it’d be a shame to lose it all to a fender bender.
It’s not extremely likely that these orbiters would be on a collision course (there’s still a whole lot of space out there), but NASA notes its something they’re forced to track more closely now, as more nations and projects expand to explore our celestial neighbor.
"There was less of a possibility of an issue," Mars Program chief engineer at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) Robert Shotwell said. "MAVEN's highly elliptical orbit, crossing the altitudes of other orbits, changes the probability that someone will need to do a collision-avoidance maneuver. We track all the orbiters much more closely now. There's still a low probability of needing a maneuver, but it's something we need to manage."
To handle the heavy lifting, NASA uses its Deep Space Network of radio dishes to track the various craft. If any two ever seem like they might be getting too close, they have a protocol in place to inform the nation/engineers/etc. in charge to potentially maneuver out of the way to make sure everyone keeps flying.
As Mars remains the next big target for humanity, it’s interesting to look at the logistics of potentially keeping all this tech safe and coordinated so far from Earth. It’s also unsettling to think that even if we make it to another planet, we’re still going to have to deal with traffic.