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NASA and China shared data on the Mars orbiters

NASA requested congressional approval to speak with Chinese partners to obtain information on China’s fresh Mars spacecraft’s orbit to reduce the threat of a crash with other Mars orbiters. Throughout a question-and-answer discussion following a March 23 speech at a conference of the Commercial Space Transportation Advisory Committee of Federal Aviation Administration, NASA Acting Administrator Steve Jurczyk disclosed the agency’s uncommon, but not unexpected, discussions with China, when a member of the committee questioned him about what overview the agency had into Chinese space activities.

Due to various federal law limitations on NASA’s encounters with Chinese organizations, Jurczyk mentioned that NASA’s understanding of China’s space scheme is mainly restricted to publicly available information. If Congress approves the restrictions, NASA will be able to work with China. “We had an exchange with them recently about them offering their ephemeris data, their orbital data, for their Tianwen-1 Mars orbiting flight, so that we could do accordance analysis around Mars together with the orbiters,” he stated.

NASA stated it exchanged data with the China National Space Administration (CNSA), as well as many other space agencies which operate spacecraft on Mars, in a short note to SpaceNews late March 29.

“To guarantee the security of our various missions, NASA is collaborating with the United Arab Emirates, Indian Space Research Organisation, European Space Agency, and China National Space Administration, all of whom have a spaceship in orbit around Mars, to share information on our corresponding Mars missions,” the agency stated. “This restricted information exchange is in line with industry best practices for ensuring effective communication among the satellite operators as well as spacecraft safety in orbit.”

NASA issued a statement six days after the SpaceNews contacted the agency about Jurczyk’s remarks. Still, it did not respond to specific questions about the nature of the NASA-CNSA interaction. These included the level of risk that Tianwen-1’s lack of precise orbital data presented to other Mars missions, as well as whether NASA was offering any warnings to CNSA about Tianwen-1’s potential close approaches to other spaceship orbiting Mars.

The Multimission Automated Deepspace Conjunction Assessment Process (MADCAP) is a program run by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory that performs conjunction evaluations of spacecraft orbiting Mars. The program, which was formerly known as the Mars Deepspace Collision Avoidance Process, also assesses conjunctions for spaceship orbiting the moon. The small number of spacecraft presently orbiting Mars appears to make the chances of two colliding unlikely. However, as JPL pointed out in a 2015 lecture about MADCAP, like spacecraft, frequently operate in comparable orbits, increasing the likelihood of close encounters. “Because of the small number of properties, collision costs are extremely high in terms of lost science abilities,” it continued.

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