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April 7, 2013

Mars Rover Survival

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Steve Squyres Benjamin Franklin Medal 2007 award video

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As NASA scientists worry that continued stormy weather could doom the robotic rovers to power failure, it's easy to forget they were only designed to last 90 days in the first place. More than 1,200 days after their landing, this ScienCentral News video asks: How on Mars have they lasted this long?

Still Going

The outlook may be improving for the feisty twin Mars rovers Spirit and Opportunity, caught in a blinding month-long dust storm that's threatened their power supply. The storms have lasted more than a month and have blocked 99 percent of direct sunlight to Opportunity's solar panels, so NASA stopped all driving and science observations, and a week ago stopped that rover's communication with Earth. But yesterday, the space agency announced that Opportunity had sent signals showing that those energy-conservation steps may have improved its power status. NASA also said communications from Spirit, on the other side of Mars, suggested the skies may be clearing at its location.

Steve Squyres discusses the fate of the Rovers.
In some ways this is surprising, but in other ways it is not. Surely no one ever doubted that Spirit and Opportunity were tough robots. They were built to endure temperatures 150 degrees below freezing, explore extreme terrain, and weather fierce dust storms.

But even the project's lead scientist, Steve Squyres, didn't expect them to last well over three years. He worried the red Martian dust might even end the missions within weeks by coating the solar panels that supply their power.

"We looked at all sorts of ways to try to keep the panels clean: windshield wipers, transparent plastic that you could put on rollers and you could roll it off to bring new plastic into place. All of the different techniques that we looked at were big, complicated, heavy," Squyres says.

Lab Technicians work on the design of the Solar Panels.
Image: NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory
Instead, they made the fold-out panels as large as the lander could handle. They've also had some luck. "On several occasions we have had fortuitous gusts of wind that have cleaned the dust off the solar array, and that's sort of given us a new lease on life," he says.

Both rovers long ago exceeded their missions-- finding evidence that Mars was once a watery place. Squyres' team continued to find new places for the rover to explore, and they have experienced all of the Martian seasons. Now the team is treating every Martian day as if it were the rovers' last.

"We've worked so hard on these things for so long, that when they die it's going to be very tough on us," says Squyres. "On the other hand, they will certainly be honorable deaths. These vehicles were expected to last a few months; they've lasted for years. The discoveries have far outstripped anything we could have reasonably expected from them. And so, it will be sad day, but it will be a proud day as well.

One of the Mars Rovers makes tracks through the dust.
Image: NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory
"And there will be a silver lining to it, in the sense that when they die, those of us who spend all of our time operating them will get our lives back," he adds. "You know, we've been doing this for years now and it's meant an enormous amount of sacrifice-- time away from families, that kind of stuff. And once it's over we'll start to live more normal lives again."

Squyres says the wealth of new details Spirit and Opportunity have gathered about the planet's environment will help the human explorers who may one day walk in their wheel tracks.

"I really view these rovers as being to a large extent precursors for sending humans," he says. "So, in the future when people are building, are designing habitats or spacesuits, the kinds of things humans will need to survive in this environment, they'll have our basic experience to begin with."

       email to a friend by Joyce Gramza

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