The Alan Sondheim Mail Archive


---------- Forwarded message ----------
Date: Fri, 07 Sep 2007 14:38:23 -0700
From: NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory <info@jpl.nasa.gov>
To: "sondheim@panix.com" <sondheim@panix.com>
Subject: Mars Rovers Survive Dust Storms, Ready for Next Objectives

MEDIA RELATIONS OFFICE
JET PROPULSION LABORATORY
CALIFORNIA INSTITUTE OF TECHNOLOGY
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http://www.jpl.nasa.gov

Guy Webster 818-354-6278
Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.

Dwayne Brown 202-358-1726
NASA Headquarters, Washington

NEWS RELEASE: 2007-098      	  	     			September 7, 2007

Mars Rovers Survive Dust Storms, Ready for Next Objectives

PASADENA, Calif. - Two months after sky-darkening dust from severe storms nearly killed
NASA's Mars exploration rovers, the solar powered robots are awake and ready to continue
their mission.

Opportunity's planned descent into the giant Victoria Crater was delayed, but now the rover is
preparing to drive into the 800-meter-diameter crater (half-mile-diameter) as early as Sept. 11.

Spirit, Opportunity's rover twin, also survived the global dust storms. The rovers are 43 months
into missions originally planned to last three months. On Sept. 5, Spirit climbed onto its long-
term destination called Home Plate, a plateau of layered bedrock bearing clues to an explosive
mixture of lava and water.

"These rovers are tough. They faced dusty winds, power starvation and other challenges -- and
survived. Now they are back to doing groundbreaking field work on Mars. These spacecraft are
amazing," said Alan Stern, associate administrator of NASA's Science Mission Directorate,
Washington.

Victoria Crater contains an exposed layer of bright rocks that may preserve evidence of
interaction between the Martian atmosphere and surface from millions of years ago, when the
atmosphere might have been different from today's. Victoria is the biggest crater Opportunity
has visited.

Martian dust storms in July blocked so much sunlight that researchers grew concerned the
rovers' daily energy supplies could plunge too low for survival. Engineers at NASA's Jet
Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., put Opportunity onto a very low-energy regimen of no
movement, few observations and reduced communication with Earth. Skies above both rovers
remain dusty but have been clearing gradually since early August.

Dust from the sky has been falling onto both rovers' solar panels, impeding their ability to
collect energy from the sun. However, beneficial wind gusts removed some of the new buildup
from Opportunity almost as soon as it accumulated.

Opportunity drove to the lip of Victoria Crater in late August and examined possible entry
routes. This week, Opportunity has been driving about 40 meters (about 130 feet) toward its
planned entry point. The route will provide better access to a top priority target inside the
crater: a bright band of rocks about 12 meters (about 40 feet) from the rim. "We chose a point
that gives us a straight path down, instead of driving cross-slope from our current location,"
said Paolo Bellutta, a JPL rover driver plotting the route. "The rock surface on which
Opportunity will be driving will provide good traction and control of its path into the crater."

For its first foray into the crater, Opportunity will drive just far enough to get all six wheels in;
it will then back out and assess slippage on the inner slope. "Opportunity might be ready for
that first 'toe dip' into the crater as early as next week," said JPL's John Callas, rover project
manager. "In addition to the drives to get to the entry point, we still need to conduct checkouts
of two of Opportunity's instruments before sending the rover into the crater."

The rover team plans to assess if dust has impaired use of the microscopic imager. If that tool is
working, the team will use it to observe whether a scanning mirror for the miniature thermal
emission spectrometer (Mini-TES) can function accurately. This mirror is high on the rover's
camera mast. It reflects infrared light from the landscape to the spectrometer at the base of the
mast, and it also can be positioned to close the hole in the mast as protection from dust. The last
time the spectrometer was used, some aspects of the data suggested the instrument may have
been viewing the inside of the mast instead of the Martian landscape.

"If the dust cover or mirror is no longer moving properly, we may have lost the ability to use
that instrument on Opportunity," said Steve Squyres of Cornell University, Ithaca, N.Y.,
principal investigator for the rovers' science instruments. "It would be the first permanent loss
of an instrument on either rover. But we'll see."

The instrument already has provided extensive valuable information about rocks and soils in
the Meridiani region where Opportunity works. "Mini-TES has told us a lot about the rocks and
soils at Meridiani, but we've learned that the differences among Meridiani rocks are often too
subtle for it to distinguish," Squyres said. "The same instrument on Spirit, at Gusev Crater, has
a much more crucial role for us at this point in the mission because there is such diversity at
Gusev." Researchers will rely heavily on a different type of instrument, Opportunity's alpha
particle X-ray spectrometer, for analysis of rocks at the bright-band target layer in the crater.

The Jet Propulsion Laboratory manages the Mars Exploration Rover project for NASA's
Science Mission Directorate. For images and information about the rovers, visit:
http://www.nasa.gov/rovers .

RELATED MULTIMEDIA:
Audio podcast: http://www.jpl.nasa.gov/multimedia/podcast/mer-20070907/ .
Broadcast-quality audio clips: http://www.jpl.nasa.gov/multimedia/audioclips/mer-20070907/
Video file with animation, images and sound bites airing today on NASA TV.

-end-



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