Mars Rovers Braving Severe Dust Storms

Jul 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: NASA's space station Robonaut finally getting legs

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

A full-spectrum Mars simulation in a box

8 hours ago

There are many reasons why Mars excels at destroying expensive equipment. For one thing, its entire surface is made of partially-magnetized dust. For another, Mars possesses just enough atmosphere so that ...

From Martian rocks, a planet's watery story emerges

Apr 02, 2014

After 18 months on Mars, the rover Curiosity has taken more than 120,000 measurements of surface rocks and soil, painting a more detailed image of how much water was once on the Red Planet. An article in Chemical & Engineering Ne ...

Recommended for you

NASA's space station Robonaut finally getting legs

13 hours ago

Robonaut, the first out-of-this-world humanoid, is finally getting its space legs. For three years, Robonaut has had to manage from the waist up. This new pair of legs means the experimental robot—now stuck ...

Sun emits a mid-level solar flare

Apr 18, 2014

The sun emitted a mid-level solar flare, peaking at 9:03 a.m. EDT on April 18, 2014, and NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory captured images of the event. Solar flares are powerful bursts of radiation. Harmful ...

Impact glass stores biodata for millions of years

Apr 18, 2014

(Phys.org) —Bits of plant life encapsulated in molten glass by asteroid and comet impacts millions of years ago give geologists information about climate and life forms on the ancient Earth. Scientists ...

The importance of plumes

Apr 18, 2014

The Hubble Space Telescope is famous for finding black holes. It can pick out thousands of galaxies in a patch of sky the size of a thumbprint. The most powerful space telescope ever built, the Hubble provided ...

User comments : 0

More news stories

NASA's space station Robonaut finally getting legs

Robonaut, the first out-of-this-world humanoid, is finally getting its space legs. For three years, Robonaut has had to manage from the waist up. This new pair of legs means the experimental robot—now stuck ...

Cosmologists weigh cosmic filaments and voids

(Phys.org) —Cosmologists have established that much of the stuff of the universe is made of dark matter, a mysterious, invisible substance that can't be directly detected but which exerts a gravitational ...