I don’t normally post about science on the weekends, but this is too good to not tell you. Back in January of 2004, we successfully landed two rovers — Spirit and Opportunity — on opposite hemispheres of Mars. The views were immediately spectacular (click image for the full version).
Initially slated for 90 day missions, these two rovers have now been on Mars for more than 1800 days, and are still functional. But there are some things that we didn’t plan for, because we didn’t plan on the missions lasting this long and the rovers being this good. Take a look at this panorama of Endurance crater from 2004:
Notice the lower right-hand corner of the image? Those are solar panels, and these are Spirit’s and Opportunity’s sole sources of power. There’s something we didn’t count on happening, and after more than five years of driving around on low-gravity, low-moisture Mars, these panels have accumulated dust.
Spirit and Opportunity, as a result, were receiving, as of early 2009, about 30% and 50%, respectively, of the energy they were receiving on day 1. But this week, on April 8th, something amazing happened. Something simple and yet amazing.
Mars, where Opportunity was, got hit by heavy winds.
And as a result, Opportunity’s solar panels are now receiving 40% more energy. How simple, and yet how rare, on a planet with less than 1% of Earth’s atmosphere!
Opportunity is headed towards Endeavour Crater (above), and this power boost may shorten its trip by months. This would be the largest crater ever explored by a rover on Mars, and we may yet get to see it, all because of a gust of wind!