Friday, August 10, 2007

Mars Rovers Doing Well, But Still in Danger

via, the latest word on the twin Mars rovers Spirit and Opportunity, both of which have hunkered down and battened the hatches against a near global Martian windstorm that threatens the survival of both science vehicles. Dust kicked up into the atmosphere is blocking sunlight from reaching the rover's power generating solar panels. The good news is that by curtailing their activities and conserving power, the vehicles appear to be weathering the storm pretty well, although Opportunity has had to be shut down to the very lowest settings, primarily just enough to keep the vehicle warm.

"Of the two rovers, Spirit, in the Columbia Hills of Gusev Crater is doing pretty well, said Steve Squyres, lead Mars Exploration Rover scientist from Cornell University in Ithaca, New York.

"We need to be careful about how much power we consume, so we're not doing any driving for now. But we're making daily science observations, and the vehicle is in good health," Squyres told "In fact, in just the past couple of weeks we've made the first observations ever of substantial movement of wind ripples on the martian surface. So I feel good about Spirit for the moment.......Squyres said that there are two concerns with Opportunity: One is that there's need to keep the vehicle "power positive" -- to make sure that it generates more power than it consumes. The other is that the rover must keep its electronic innards warm enough.

"The difficult thing about this is that the way you stay power positive is by not consuming energy, and the way you stay warm is by consuming energy. So it's a matter of finding the right balance. We're doing OK so far ... but it's day to day," Squyres said."

The good news is that the dust is creating a bit of a greenhouse effect that is keeping nighttime planetary temperatures a bit warmer than they would be if the skies were clear. While the vehicles are still in pretty good shape, there is a bit of frustration on the part of scientists on the project because the storm is delaying important scientific observations. Both rovers are very near to their latest scientific objectives, with Opportunity about to enter into the Victoria Crater region and Spirit looking to gather more volcanic evidence from an area that has been dubbed "Home Plate".

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