When the Martian Winds Blow…

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!

Comments

  1. #1 NewEnglandBob
    April 11, 2009

    Away out here they have a name for rain and wind and fire.
    The rain is Tess, the fire’s Joe and they call the wind Mariah.

    Mariah blows the stars around and sets the clouds a-flyin’.
    Mariah makes the mountains sound like folks was out there dyin’.

    Mariah. (Mariah).
    Mariah. (Mariah).
    They call the wind Mariah.

    - Kingston Trio

  2. #2 george.w
    April 11, 2009

    This is such wonderful news! I know it’s silly to root for robots, but…

    I must recommend Steve Squyres’ book, Roving Mars: Spirit, Opportunity, and the exploration of the red planet. It is a wonderful trip in the minds and hearts of people who gave us a pair of windows into another planet. Unfortunately I’ve loaned out my copy and can’t remember to whom.

  3. #3 Ian O'Neill
    April 11, 2009

    Hello Dr Ethan!

    Hey, I’m liking your new gig over here! Congrats once again! And thanks for linking to my rover story, great article. I love those little robots :)

    Cheers, Ian

  4. #4 Ethan Siegel
    April 12, 2009

    Thanks!

    NewEnglandBob, the Kingston Trio did a great version of “Last Month of the Year” as well; I’m mostly unfamiliar with them, though. Thanks for the extra info!

    George, I root for robots all the time. The prospect of their successes can positively impact my life and human knowledge far greater than many people can ever hope for.

    And Ian, thanks a lot! It’s great to be over here at my new web home, and I’m always pleased to link to a good astroengine story!

  5. #5 Nils Ross
    April 12, 2009

    Let it not be said that they don’t make them like they used to. Thanks for the images.

  6. #6 Naked Bunny with a Whip
    April 12, 2009

    Their 90-day5-year mission, to explore a strange new world….

  7. #7 Blake Stacey
    April 12, 2009

    The Mars rovers are a pretty amazing success story.

    (Welcome to ScienceBlogs, by the way — I should have said hello sooner, but I’ve been drowning in simulation results the past couple weeks.)

  8. #8 Sili
    April 12, 2009

    Emily Lakdawalla just wrote about how the MSL is gonna have ‘pipecleaners’ to avoid the unfortunate stickiness that plagued Phoenix.

    I suspect future rovers will be equipped with dusters.

  9. #9 Christov
    April 13, 2009

    The god of war favours technology.

  10. #10 CanInternet
    April 14, 2009

    I simply love these two little rovers.
    Every time they surprise me with something new.

  11. #11 Joshua Zelinsky
    April 19, 2009

    This isn’t the first time this has happened with these rovers. See for example http://www.space.com/missionlaunches/spirit_dust_050312.html