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Mon, Jul 23, 2007

NASA Rovers Immobilized By Mars Dust Storm

Three Week Dust Storm, With No End in Sight

NASA's twin rovers Spirit and Opportunity are going nowhere fast, as they sit tight on Mars waiting out a major three-week dust storm that doesn't appear to have an end in sight, according to the Los Angeles Times Saturday.

"This is by far the worst storm the rovers have ever seen," said John Callas, project manager for the Rovers at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in La Cañada Flintridge, CA.

"We're rooting for our rovers to survive these storms, but they were never designed for conditions this intense," said Alan Stern, associate administrator of NASA's Science Mission Directorate, Washington.

If the sunlight is further cut back for an extended period, reported NASA, the rovers will be unable to generate sufficient power to keep themselves warm and operate at all, even in a near-dormant state. The rovers use electric heaters to keep some of their vital core electronics from becoming too cold.

As ANN reported earlier this month, the giant dust storm affects surface operations of the Rovers because they depend on solar energy, which is not available when the sun is blocked by dust.

Each day, the rovers power up to measure how much light is getting through. Prior to this summer, the worst conditions came from a storm that blocked 80 percent of sunlight.

The current weather is blocking more than 99% of sunlight. "Now it's all about saving power," said Callas.

NASA engineers are taking proactive measures to protect the rovers, especially Opportunity, which is receiving the brunt of the dust storm. Spirit, located in an area less severely impacted, was instructed to conserve battery power by limiting activities.

"We are taking more aggressive action with both rovers than we needed before," said Callas.

By Opportunity's 1,236th Martian day Tuesday, driving and all science observations had already been suspended. The rover still used more energy than its solar panels could generate on that day, drawing down its battery.

"The only thing left to cut were some of the communication sessions," Callas said.

To minimize further the amount of energy Opportunity is using, mission controllers sent commands to the rover Wednesday to refrain from communicating with Earth on Thursday and Friday, marking the first time either rover has been told to skip communications for a day or more in order to conserve energy.

Engineers calculate that omitting communications sessions should lower daily energy use to less than 130 watt hours.

Unfortunately, one possible outcome of the storm is that one or both rovers could be damaged permanently or disabled. Engineers will assess the capability of each rover after the storm clears, said NASA.

Engineers will assess the capability of each rover after the storm clears.

The Jet Propulsion Laboratory manages the Mars Exploration Rover project for NASA's Science Mission Directorate.

FMI: www.nasa.gov, www.jpl.nasa.gov

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