Home Is Where the Mars Rover Is

Now that Opportunity’s mission is complete, many wistfully lament about “bringing our robot home.” There’s just one problem: it’s already home.

A rendering of Opportunity on Mars [NASA/JPL-Caltech]

I am fascinated with how we anthropomorphize robots, particularly space robots. We call them “brave,” “pioneers” and even give them genders — usually a “she.” We get emotional when they reach the end of their missions, saying they’ve “died” or, as I like to say, “gone to Silicon Heaven.” But these robots are, for all intents and purposes, tools. Sure, they expand the reach of our senses, allowing us to see strange new worlds and parts of the universe where humans fear to tread, but they’re an assembly of electronics, metal, plastic, sensors, transmitters, wheels and solar panels. They don’t have emotions. They don’t breathe. They don’t philosophize about the incredible feats of exploration they are undertaking. They don’t have genders.

Still, we fall in love. When watching Curiosity land on Mars from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, I teared up, full of joy that the six-wheeled hulk of a rover — that I’d met personally in JPL’s clean room a couple of years before — had safely landed on the Red Planet. After watching NASA’s InSight lander touch down on Elysium Planitia, again via JPL’s media room last year, there it was again, I was in love. I’m already anthropomorphizing the heck out of that mission, seeing InSight’s landing as another “heartbeat” on Mars. When the European Rosetta mission found Philae lying on its side like a discarded child’s toy on the surface of comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko, I jumped up from my desk with joy. When Cassini’s mission at Saturn ended in 2017, I was miserable. When the Chinese rover Yutu rolled off its lander in 2014, I realized I was cheering the robot on. When Spirit got stuck in a sand trap in Gusev Crater, I set up a Google alert for any and all news on the recovery efforts.

These emotions aren’t just for the exciting science and engineering strides humanity makes, there’s a certain inspirational character that each robot brings. Undoubtedly, this character naturally emerges from the wonderful scientists and engineers who design and build these amazing machines, and the social media managers who often “speak” for their robots in first person. But if you strip away the science, the technology and the people who build them, we still personalize our beloved robots, giving them their own character and creating a cartoon personality. I believe that’s a beautiful trait in the human condition (except a few flawed cultural and stereotypical missteps) and can be used to great effect to captivate the general public with the science that these robots do.

Opportunity’s landing site inside Eagle crater [NASA/JPL-Caltech]

So there’s no great surprise about the outpouring of emotion for last week’s announcement that NASA called off the communications efforts with Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity. This kick-ass robot traveled 28 miles and lasted nearly 15 years, until a global dust storm in early 2018 starved it of sunlight. It landed on Mars way back in 2004, with its twin, Spirit, beginning its Martian reign with a hole-in-one, literally — after bouncing and rolling across the regolith after its entry and descent, encased inside a genius airbag system, it plopped inside the tiny Eagle crater. We’ve collectively lived through Opportunity’s adventures and the groundbreaking science it has done. There’s a huge number of terrific robot obituaries out there, so I won’t duplicate those efforts here. There is, however, a recurring sentiment that is somewhat misplaced, though entirely innocent.

Opportunity — like Spirit and all the Mars rovers and landers that have come and gone — died at home.

This may sound like an odd statement, but there seems to be this fascination with “returning” our space robots to Earth. I’ve seen cartoons of the Dr Who traveling through time to “rescue” Opportunity. People have argued for the case of future Mars astronauts returning these artifacts to terrestrial museums. There’s that touching XKCD cartoon of Spirit being “stranded” on Mars after NASA declared it lost in 2010, that is being resurfaced for Opportunity. We want our dusty Mars rover back!

Dusty rover [NASA/JPL-Caltech]

It’s understandable, that rover has been continuously exploring Mars for a decade and a half, many of its fans, including myself, could check in on Opportunity’s adventures daily, browsing the latest batch of raw images that were uploaded to the NASA servers. We love that thing. In the tradition of military service members who die abroad, we go to great efforts to bring their bodies home so they can repatriated; we want to repatriate our science service member back to Earth.

But Opportunity is a robot that was designed for Mars. Every single design consideration took the Martian environment into account. The Red Planet’s gravity is roughly 1/3rd that of Earth, so the weight on its actuators and chassis are 2/3rds less than what they’d experience on our planet. Its motors are too under powered to reliably drive the robot forward on Earth. On Mars, they’re perfect. Granted, the mass of the Mars Exploration Rovers (approximately 185 kg) are a lot less than their supersized cousin, Curiosity (899 kg), but if Opportunity and Spirit had a 90-day mission exploring the dunes of the Californian Mojave Desert, I’m betting they wouldn’t get very far; they would be under-powered and grind to a halt. They’d also likely overheat as they were designed to withstand the incredibly low temperatures on the Martian surface.

The robots we send to Mars are undeniably Martian. If we’re going to anthropomorphize these beautiful machines, let’s think about what they’d want. I’m guessing they’d want to stay on that dusty terrain and not return to the alien place where they were constructed. And, in doing so, they become the first generation of archaeological sites on the Red Planet that, one day, the first biological Martians will visit.

A Martian’s shadow [NASA/JPL-Caltech]

Spirit Suffers Another Bout of Amnesia. Spirit Suffers Another Bout of Amnesia.

"Oh, that's a nice view, I hadn't noticed that hill before. Hey, that's a pretty-looking rock!"

NASA’s Mars Exploration Rover Spirit is suffering from amnesia, again.

This is hardly surprising if we consider that the lifespan of Spirit should have been 3 months, the fact that it has lasted 69 months (so far) is nothing short of miraculous. In rover-mission-lifetime years, doesn’t that make Spirit and her twin sister Opportunity 1380 years old? (I decided that a “lifetime” is 60 years, in case you were wondering.) Perhaps that’s not how it works, but for NASA to build a robot that has lived 23 times longer than the mission specified is pretty damn impressive. No wonder Spirit is losing her memory. I’m surprised she hasn’t lost the will to live.

Spirit has lost the use of one of her wheels and remains stuck in the sand… so she is showing her age. But still, 23× longer than planned? When I’m 1380 years old, I hope I’m only suffering amnesia every now and again.

Source: Physorg.com

Opportunity Investigates Possible Martian Meteorite


On its epic journey to Endeavour Crater, Mars Expedition Rover (MER) Opportunity passed a suspect looking boulder on July 18th. Dubbed “Block Island” by MER controllers, this dark rock looks very different from its surroundings, so Opportunity has been ordered to go off its planned route by 250 meters and have closer look.

Measuring approximately 0.6 meters across, the jagged specimen could be a meteorite, giving the rover a chance to carry out an in-situ analysis of its composition, determining whether or not this is indeed of extra-martian origin.

The odd-shaped and dark rock sits atop the regolith, and Opportunity will use its APXS instrument to determine its composition (NASA)
The odd-shaped and dark rock sits atop the regolith, and Opportunity will use its APXS instrument to determine its composition (NASA)

The next step is for the rover to extend its robotic arm, pressing the Alpha Particle X-Ray Spectrometer (APXS) up against the rock’s surface. The spectrometer will basically give the sample a blast of radiation, consisting of alpha particles and X-rays. The analysis of scattered alpha particles (after they have bounced off the material) will reveal the mass of the elements they collide with and the emission of X-rays will also reveal a lot about the material.

So could this be a meteorite? We’ll have to wait until the little robot has carried out its experiment… she may be getting old, but Opportunity is still carrying out some awesome science.

Source: NASA

Mars Rover Spirit is Stuck in the Regolith

Spirit is stuck (NASA)

Mars Exploration Rover Spirit is in trouble again. She’s stuck.

The tenacious little robot has suffered traction problems before and has even been dragging around a broken wheel for the last three years, leaving the other five to take up the slack. Then there’s the dust storms that have hindered the life-giving solar panels ability to collect sunlight. And most recently, the on-board computers have been rebooting and Spirit’s flash memory has been forgetting to record data.

A little help here? Spirit has driven into soft ground, burying her wheels halfway. Engineers are working plans to extricate her. –A distress tweet from @MarsRovers

One of Spirit's buried wheels as taken by the front hazard-avoidance camera on Sol 1899, May 6th (NASA)
One of Spirit's buried wheels as taken by the front hazard-avoidance camera on Sol 1899, May 6th (NASA)

Now, she’s stuck in the Martian dirt after slipping backwards down a slope during a series of backward drives around a plateau called “Home Plate.”

Spirit is in a very difficult situation,” JPL project manager John Callas said. “We are proceeding methodically and cautiously. It may be weeks before we try moving Spirit again. Meanwhile, we are using Spirit’s scientific instruments to learn more about the physical properties of the soil that is giving us trouble.”

At JPL, a team have been assembled to try to find a solution to the problem with a model of the situation here on Earth. Unfortunately the wheels are stuck fast, half-buried, and scientists are increasingly worried that any attempts to free the struggling rover could make matters worse. The concern is for the chassis under the robot. Should it make contact with the rocks underneath, it would effectively beach itself, completely losing traction that could be used to free the wheels. In short, the situation is not good, but NASA is working overtime to find ways to get the rover on the road once more.

Fortunately, wind has helped the ailing rover recently, clearing excess dust off the solar panels, giving Spirit a much needed energy boost, but will it be enough to get her out of this difficult situation? If there’s a way, Spirit will find it, as let’s face it, she’s lived through a lot of hard knocks…

Source: NASA, AP

40% More Solar Energy For Opportunity


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.

Source: NASA

A Windy Day on Mars Gives Spirit an Energy Boost

On Mars, there are no car washes, no windscreen wipers, no rain, no fans... you get the picture... (NASA)
On Mars, there are no car washes, no windscreen wipers, no rain, no fans... you get the picture. (NASA)

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.
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Dust Really IS a Problem for Spirit

The ninja rover, NASA's answer to creeping up on Martian lifeforms...
The ninja rover, NASA's answer to creeping up on Martian lifeforms...

Talk about having a bad dust day. Only last night on Astroengine Live I was discussing the near-death experience Mars Exploration Rover Spirit survived a few days ago. Much to NASA’s (and the science-loving world’s) relief, the Sun-blocking dust storm in Gusev Crater couldn’t beat down this tough wheeled warrior. Even though her solar panels are coated in a thick layer of red dust, she battles on to see another sol. According to NASA, Spirit will remain in a recovery mode until next month at least, giving the batteries some time to recharge…
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Phoenix is Dead, Spirit is Failing

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”