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Dust storms whip up trouble for NASA rovers

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September 11, 2007

4:49 PM

After months of braving strong Martian dust storms, two of NASA’s rovers, Opportunity and Spirit, are ready to continue research.

p. Dust storms that began in late July blocked most of the sunlight that the rovers use to create electrical energy. This forced NASA to halt their research in order to ensure that the instruments did not fail.

p. The Opportunity is scheduled to explore the Victoria Crater, an impact crater that offers a window into the subsurface geology of Mars and could make the journey as early as today.

p. “Opportunity might be ready for that first “toe dip” into the crater as early as next week,” John Callas, project manager for the Mars Rover Mission, said in an interview with Space.com.
Victoria Crater is just one of many research sites for the Opportunity during its 43-month trek across the Meridiani Planum, a plain on Mars that may hold evidence supporting the belief that Mars once had surface water.

p. The interest in exploring Victoria Crater stems from a layer of exposed bedrock within the crater that could provide clues as to the interaction between the surface and the atmosphere on Mars millions of years ago.

p. In preparation for the voyage into the crater, Opportunity must have its instruments checked because of the dust storms. One of the most important instruments, a mast-mounted mirror, must be inspected thoroughly because data sent back to Earth suggested that it may not be working properly.

p. According to Space.com, the mast-mounted mirror reflects infrared light into the rover’s Miniature Thermal Emission Spectrometer (Mini-TES), which is used to determine which rocks occupy the Martian surface.

p. The Opportunity, which is formally named Mars Exploration Rover-B (MER-B), is currently in its fourth year of Martian roving and has thus far uncovered evidence of ancient Martian water and conducted a study of a Martian meteorite.

p. Thanks to the detailed geologic survey that the Opportunity conducted on Meridiani Planum, scientists have been able to make a hypothesis that links current hematite existence on Mars to past water presence. Hematite forms on Earth in hot springs or still standing bodies of water. Because of this, scientists believe there may once have been standing water on Mars.

p. At optimal conditions, the rovers can generate around 700 watts/hour of energy a day. If the rovers get less than 150 watts/hour of energy, they begin to use their batteries. These batteries can be drained quickly in the very cold climate of Mars.

p. Once the batteries are drained, the instruments and electrical systems will fail, causing the rover to lose the ability to perform tasks such as conducting research and communicating with Earth.
Opportunity received only 128 watts/hour of energy July 18, its lowest reading ever. NASA responded by only allowing the rover to communicate with Earth once every three days.

p. Fortunately, the dust storms have ceased and it appears that the rovers remain unscathed. They are ready to continue searching for clues to Mars’ past, inching us one step closer to determining whether life does, or ever did exist, on Mars.

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