As dust storms ease, Mars rovers return to exploration

After conserving power since June, the rovers are back at work

The two Mars rovers that have been carefully conserving critical power supplies since June, when the summer dust-storm season began on the red planet, are now springing back to work as the storms subside.

Jake Matijevic, engineering team chief at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, California, said the dust storms have been easing over the past two weeks, allowing the two rovers to collect more sunlight with their solar panels to recharge their batteries. When the dust storms were at their strongest in June and July, as much as 99 percent of the sunlight in the planet's southern hemisphere was blocked -- drastically affecting the Opportunity rover. The storms meant cutbacks in operations as both Opportunity and its sibling, Spirit, on the other side of the planet, drastically conserved power so their systems would survive and continue to operate.

"Everything survived just fine," Matijevic said. "We came out of the storms without a problem."

So far, power levels on both rovers remain below prestorm levels, he said, but they are enough for the rovers to again move about and continue to explore the planet's surface.

Both rovers are resuming work after a series of certification tests to be sure that all systems are still operating properly. Mission engineers are again able to send commands to the rovers and receive data back on a daily basis, which wasn't possible for the past two months. "We were spreading those out over a couple of days during the dust storms just to try to conserve energy," Matijevic said.

Past storms on Mars affected the rovers, but those were only short-term events, Matijevic said. This year's storms were especially strong.

Typically, the solar panels on each rover produce about 700 watt-hours of electricity per day -- enough to light a 100-watt bulb for seven hours, according to NASA. But this year's dust storms reduced that to as little as 128 watt hours per day. When daily power generation is down to less than 400 watt-hours, the rovers suspend their driving on the planet and stop using their robotic arms, cameras and other instruments.

Electrical power is critical on the rovers in the deep cold of space, where subfreezing temperatures can destroy sensitive electronics. If the batteries completely die, heating systems on the rovers that keep those sensitive electronic parts within a safe temperature range would fail, leaving the rovers so cold that their onboard electronics would likely fail. The rovers are certified for operating temperatures as low as -40 degrees Fahrenheit, while the low temperatures on Mars can plummet to as much as -103 degrees Fahrenheit.

The two rovers, which landed on Mars three weeks apart in January 2004, were designed to collect information, perform experiments and travel the planet for 90 days. Instead, they have collected data on Mars for more than three years, giving scientists and researchers a wealth of information.

A few weeks after landing, the Spirit rover suffered computer memory problems that were later resolved. Two months later, the rovers needed operating system updates to improve their performance. Last year, Spirit had a problem with one of its six wheels, but that also was corrected, allowing the mission to continue.

"We've long since recognized that these vehicles are very capable and resilient after three-and-a-half years on Mars," Matijevic said. "I think we probably can go on for another calendar year at least and maybe longer, too."

According to Matijevic, the rover Opportunity will continue its exploration of the Victoria Crater on Mars to learn more about the terrain, while Spirit will soon explore Gusev Crater near where it landed.

The dust-storm season, while easing, will continue through mid-November, so the rovers won't return to full power right away, Matijevic said.

Join the PC World newsletter!

Error: Please check your email address.

Our Back to Business guide highlights the best products for you to boost your productivity at home, on the road, at the office, or in the classroom.

Keep up with the latest tech news, reviews and previews by subscribing to the Good Gear Guide newsletter.

Todd R. Weiss

Computerworld
Show Comments

Essentials

Lexar® JumpDrive® S57 USB 3.0 flash drive

Learn more >

Microsoft L5V-00027 Sculpt Ergonomic Keyboard Desktop

Learn more >

Mobile

Lexar® JumpDrive® S45 USB 3.0 flash drive 

Learn more >

Exec

HD Pan/Tilt Wi-Fi Camera with Night Vision NC450

Learn more >

Audio-Technica ATH-ANC70 Noise Cancelling Headphones

Learn more >

Lexar® JumpDrive® C20c USB Type-C flash drive 

Learn more >

Lexar® Professional 1800x microSDHC™/microSDXC™ UHS-II cards 

Learn more >

Budget

Back To Business Guide

Click for more ›

Most Popular Reviews

Latest News Articles

Resources

PCW Evaluation Team

Azadeh Williams

HP OfficeJet Pro 8730

A smarter way to print for busy small business owners, combining speedy printing with scanning and copying, making it easier to produce high quality documents and images at a touch of a button.

Andrew Grant

HP OfficeJet Pro 8730

I've had a multifunction printer in the office going on 10 years now. It was a neat bit of kit back in the day -- print, copy, scan, fax -- when printing over WiFi felt a bit like magic. It’s seen better days though and an upgrade’s well overdue. This HP OfficeJet Pro 8730 looks like it ticks all the same boxes: print, copy, scan, and fax. (Really? Does anyone fax anything any more? I guess it's good to know the facility’s there, just in case.) Printing over WiFi is more-or- less standard these days.

Ed Dawson

HP OfficeJet Pro 8730

As a freelance writer who is always on the go, I like my technology to be both efficient and effective so I can do my job well. The HP OfficeJet Pro 8730 Inkjet Printer ticks all the boxes in terms of form factor, performance and user interface.

Michael Hargreaves

Windows 10 for Business / Dell XPS 13

I’d happily recommend this touchscreen laptop and Windows 10 as a great way to get serious work done at a desk or on the road.

Aysha Strobbe

Windows 10 / HP Spectre x360

Ultimately, I think the Windows 10 environment is excellent for me as it caters for so many different uses. The inclusion of the Xbox app is also great for when you need some downtime too!

Mark Escubio

Windows 10 / Lenovo Yoga 910

For me, the Xbox Play Anywhere is a great new feature as it allows you to play your current Xbox games with higher resolutions and better graphics without forking out extra cash for another copy. Although available titles are still scarce, but I’m sure it will grow in time.

Featured Content

Latest Jobs

Don’t have an account? Sign up here

Don't have an account? Sign up now

Forgot password?