Mars Rovers Braving Severe Dust Storms

July 20, 2007
Mars Rovers Braving Severe Dust Storms

Having explored Mars for three-and-a-half years in what were missions originally designed for three months, NASA's Mars rovers are facing perhaps their biggest challenge.

For nearly a month, a series of severe Martian summer dust storms has affected the rover Opportunity and, to a lesser extent, its companion, Spirit. The dust in the Martian atmosphere over Opportunity has blocked 99 percent of direct sunlight to the rover, leaving only the limited diffuse sky light to power it. Scientists fear the storms might continue for several days, if not weeks. "We're rooting for our rovers to survive these storms, but they were never designed for conditions this intense," said Alan Stern, associate administrator of NASA's Science Mission Directorate, Washington.

If the sunlight is further cut back for an extended period, the rovers will not be able to generate enough power to keep themselves warm and operate at all, even in a near-dormant state. The rovers use electric heaters to keep some of their vital core electronics from becoming too cold.

Before the dust storms began blocking sunlight last month, Opportunity's solar panels had been producing about 700 watt hours of electricity per day, enough to light a 100-watt bulb for seven hours. When dust in the air reduced the panels' daily output to less than 400 watt hours, the rover team suspended driving and most observations, including use of the robotic arm, cameras and spectrometers to study the site where Opportunity is located.

On Tuesday, July 17, the output from Opportunity's solar panels dropped to 148 watt hours, the lowest point for either rover. On Wednesday, Opportunity's solar-panel output dropped even lower, to 128 watt hours.

NASA engineers are taking proactive measures to protect the rovers, especially Opportunity, which is experiencing the brunt of the dust storm. The rovers are showing robust survival characteristics. Spirit, in a location where the storm is currently less severe, has been instructed to conserve battery power by limiting its activities.

"We are taking more aggressive action with both rovers than we needed before," said John Callas, project manager for the twin rovers at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.

By Opportunity's 1,236th Martian day, which ended Tuesday, driving and all science observations had already been suspended. The rover still used more energy than its solar panels could generate on that day, drawing down its battery. "The only thing left to cut were some of the communication sessions," Callas said.

To minimize further the amount of energy Opportunity is using, mission controllers sent commands on Wednesday, July 18, instructing the rover to refrain from communicating with Earth on Thursday and Friday. This is the first time either of the rovers has been told to skip communications for a day or more in order to conserve energy. Engineers calculate that skipping communications sessions should lower daily energy use to less than 130 watt hours.

A possible outcome of this storm is that one or both rovers could be damaged permanently or even disabled. Engineers will assess the capability of each rover after the storm clears.

Source: NASA

Explore further: The future of moon mining

Related Stories

The future of moon mining

November 17, 2016

Ever since we began sending crewed missions to the moon, people have been dreaming of the day when we might one day colonize it. Just imagine, a settlement on the lunar surface, where everyone constantly feels only about ...

Study predicts next global dust storm on Mars

October 6, 2016

Global dust storms on Mars could soon become more predictable—which would be a boon for future astronauts there—if the next one follows a pattern suggested by those in the past.

The problematic history of Martian landings

October 5, 2016

We may be living in the golden age of Mars exploration. With multiple orbiters around Mars and two functioning rovers on the surface of the red planet, our knowledge of Mars is growing at an unprecedented rate. But it hasn't ...

New instrument could search for signatures of life on Mars

November 1, 2016

A sensing technique that the U.S. military currently uses to remotely monitor the air to detect potentially life-threatening chemicals, toxins, and pathogens has inspired a new instrument that could "sniff" for life on Mars ...

Rosetta: The end of a space odyssey

September 26, 2016

Europe's trailblazing deep-space comet exploration for clues to the origins of the Solar System ends Friday with the Rosetta orbiter joining robot lab Philae on the iceball's dusty surface for eternity.

Recommended for you

Hubble catches a transformation in the Virgo constellation

December 9, 2016

The constellation of Virgo (The Virgin) is especially rich in galaxies, due in part to the presence of a massive and gravitationally-bound collection of over 1300 galaxies called the Virgo Cluster. One particular member of ...

Khatyrka meteorite found to have third quasicrystal

December 9, 2016

(Phys.org)—A small team of researchers from the U.S. and Italy has found evidence of a naturally formed quasicrystal in a sample obtained from the Khatyrka meteorite. In their paper published in the journal Scientific Reports, ...

Scientists sweep stodgy stature from Saturn's C ring

December 9, 2016

As a cosmic dust magnet, Saturn's C ring gives away its youth. Once thought formed in an older, primordial era, the ring may be but a mere babe – less than 100 million years old, according to Cornell-led astronomers in ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.