Tuesday, 31 Jul, 2007 Politics

NASA's Rovers Threatened by Martian Dust Storm


During the three-and-a-half years that NASA has been on Mars, its rovers Spirit and Opportunity for the first time spotted a large-scale dust storm. The storm was so powerful that it has darkened the skies, putting NASA's rovers in danger they have never faced before.

Scientists discovered severe winds across Mars about a month ago. Such winds raised dust that later blocked the light from reaching the solar panels installed on the rovers.

It is worth mentioning that, though the dust in the atmosphere of Mars is almost as thick as a human hair, it is able to block 99 % of direct sunlight.

NASA's rover, Opportunity, is currently powered by the light scattered from the dust in the atmosphere. The storm limits the power of solar panels to less than 25 %.

The other rover, Spirit, located on the other side of Mars, was more fortunate. However, last week both Opportunity and Spirit were forced to stop driving. They also had to use conserve power in order to continue their science observations. In case the skies of the planet continue to darken for a long period of time, the rovers won't be able to generate enough power in order to stay warm and function properly.

Currently the rover sites are safe from direct storm activity, however, the weather on Mars is quite unpredictable, which means that the planet can remain covered in dust for a longer period of time than expected.

The storm began in an extremely inopportune time, when Opportunity and Spirit were positioned to study some of the planet's most mysterious targets. Opportunity began its mission to descend the steep slopes of the Victoria Crater on Mars and study the rocks found in its crater walls. It took years to get to Victoria Crater.

Spirit has been close to the Home Plate feature. The rover is meant to study the layered outcrops. It is to be outlined that the layered outcrops can reveal the evidence of past volcanic activity on Mars.

As soon as the storm clears, the engineers at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory are going to estimate how much of the planned science each of the two rovers is able to perform.

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