The End of the Rovers?

Martian rover
Without solar power, the Mars Exploration Rovers' heaters can't keep critical parts warm enough to survive the frigid Martian environment.
I always knew this day would come, but my heart sank lower than I thought it would when I read the latest press release from NASA. We've been reporting on the latest Martian dust storm for the past few weeks now, and we knew it was impacting Rover science. Opportunity put its planned trek into Victoria crater on hold because of it. Meanwhile, the dust clouds made for some terrific amateur photos from Earth.

But now the dust has become so thick that the Mars Exploration Rover team is reporting that this could mean the end for the Martian Methuselahs. The nearly opaque dust haze has dropped solar energy levels to record lows. Opportunity has it worse than Spirit — 99% of the direct sunlight to Opportunity's solar panels is blocked. The rovers always require a little power, either from the solar panels or from the rovers' rechargable batteries, for internal heaters. Without the heaters, some parts would get too cold and would permanently break.

Right now the plan is to hunker down, save energy wherever possible, and try to ride out the storm. The engineers are being cautious with Spirit as well as Opportunity because dust storms tend to migrate and can become global. As of today Spirit and Opportunity have lived 1,170 and 1,150 Martian days beyond their planned 90-day lifetimes.

We'll keep you posted on how things are going.

3 thoughts on “The End of the Rovers?

  1. G Jessen

    Given the (thankfully)unforseen longevity of the rovers, perhaps NASA will equip the next generation of rovers / landers with solar panel wipers, rather than having to rely on serendipidous encounters with Mars dust devils to maintain solar panel operability. So the design challenge is to create a light weight wiper!

  2. P. Ngo

    Wipers? No need. The next rover being sent to Mars is by far the largest and most extensively equipped with scientific instruments to date. NASA-JPL’s Mars Science Laboratory will be powered by a radioisotope thermoelectric generator (RTG). No more pesky weather worries. Launches in fall 2009.

  3. Lorna

    Maybe we should send the next rovers little socks to keep any essential hardware warm. Seriously, the loss of one or both of the rovers would be very sad. They’ve been brilliant, surviving 14 times longer than their minimum lifetime. I don’t think that any of us, even in our dreams thought that we’d still have both rovers in July 2007. If this is the end, then they have made a fantastic contribution to science. I just hope that the rovers have it in them to surprise us yet again and make it through this dust storm. Wipers wouldn’t be any use in this situation, if you’ve ever been in a dust storm, you know that the light levels are really low anyway. If Opportunity does survive, we’d better hope for another dust devil though, it’ll be really dusty. Perhaps a feather duster too?

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