Good news for Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity, a windy day on the Martian surface has cleared a layer of dust off its solar panels.
Opportunity is currently trundling across the undulating dunes of Meridiani Planum on its way to Endeavour crater, a destination it wont reach for another two years. It needs all the energy it can muster. So, like the fortuitous gust of wind that gave Spirit a 3% boost in energy in February, Opportunity has received what may appear to be a small hurricane in comparison. This gust of wind shifted so much dust caked on the rover’s solar panels, the robot has had an energy increase of 40%.
As of Sol 1850 (April 7, 2009), Opportunity’s solar array energy production has increased to 515 watt-hours. Atmospheric opacity (tau) remains elevated at around 0.95. The dust factor has improved to 0.642, meaning that 64.2 percent of sunlight hitting the solar array penetrates the layer of accumulated dust on the array. The rover is in good health with a rested actuator and extra energy. — NASA Opportunity updates
Since Opportunity arrived on Mars five years ago until April 7th, the tenacious rover has travelled 15,114 meters (9.39 miles). For a mission that was only slated to last three months, that’s not a bad distance its clocked up.
By far the biggest difficulty for robotic operations on the Martian surface are Sun-blocking dust storms. Not only do red-tinted dust clouds block the Sun from penetrating the atmosphere, the dust grains fall on solar panels, creating a layer of dusty sunscreen, reducing the amount of light falling on the photovoltaic cells. This is a special problem for long-term missions on the Red Planet. The rovers Spirit and Opportunity have been pottering around in the Martian regolith for over five years, mission planners had little idea their tough explorers would live much beyond their designed 3 month lifespan; long-term accumulation of dust was of no concern… until now. Continue reading “A Windy Day on Mars Gives Spirit an Energy Boost”
Mars dust is a big problem for technology; it’s very fine, abrasive and sticks to everything. Airborne dust has been blamed for accelerating Phoenix’s death, and the hardy Mars Exploration Rover Spirit looks like it has finally met its match. The critical issue here is a build-up of the red powder over the surface of the energy-collecting solar panels our robotic explorers depend on to power their experiments and movement over the Martian terrain. If solar cells cannot receive light, electricity cannot be generated, hastening the end of of Phoenix, and possibly one of the rover twins… Continue reading “Phoenix is Dead, Spirit is Failing”
The next NASA rover mission to the Red Planet will be the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) set for a 2009 launch. This mission will incorporate the biggest rover ever to be sent to the Martian surface, the MSL is the size of a small car and it will carry out a vast number of experiments in the hope of finding evidence for life (again).* This ambitious mission has a big price tag of $1.9 billion, so NASA will want to avoid any chance of “doing a Beagle” and ripping Mars a new impact crater.**
So, with this unprecedented mission comes an unprecedented way of lowering it to the Martian surface. Sure, you have your obligatory drogue parachute, you even have a few rocket bursts to soften the touch-down (along the lines of this year’s Phoenix powered landing), but the MSL will also have a “sky crane” to help it out (in a not-so-dissimilar way to the lowering of the descending Mars Exploration Rovers in 2004, only more awesome).
To be honest, I’m as enthusiastic about this plan as I was when I found out that Phoenix would use a jetpack after freefalling the height of two Empire State Buildings (i.e. “are you mad??“)… but then again, what would I know? It looks like the powered landing worked out pretty well for Phoenix… Continue reading “Mars Science Laboratory Sky Crane: Cool or Crazy?”