Tuesday, June 7, 2011

What goes around comes around

Once we’re in orbit around Mars, the NGIMS instrument will release its cover. This “break-off cap” seals the inlet to the instrument, keeping it free from possible contamination prior to beginning the science mission. Once the cap is released, it no longer is connected to the MAVEN spacecraft and will be in its own independent orbit around Mars. Do we have to be concerned about the potential for the cap to come back and hit the spacecraft at some later time?

When the cap is ejected, it moves away from the spacecraft at approximately 3 m/s. At that point, it’s in its own distinct orbit around Mars. Because it was ejected from the spacecraft, the cap’s orbit crosses the MAVEN orbit at at least one point. Thus, there is the possibility that it could eventually have a close encounter with the spacecraft on a later orbit and possibly even collide with it. It would be pretty embarrassing if a collision occurred, especially if it damaged or destroyed the spacecraft!

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Diagram showing the NGIMS instrument. The inlet to the instrument is covered by the break-off cap at the very far left. (Courtesy NASA/GSFC)