Opportunity Roving Mars Once Again

by Nancy Atkinson on May 16, 2012

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Opportunity's traverse map from Sol 2951 (May 13 on Earth) and shows the entirety of the rover's travels to that point. Image Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/University of Arizona

After spending 19 weeks working in one place during the Martian winter in Meridian Planum, the Opportunity Mars rover is now roving once again. During the winter, available solar power was too low for driving, but on May 8th (here on Earth), Opportunity took its first drive since Dec. 26, 2011. She drove about 3.67 meters (12 feet) northwest and downhill.

“We’re off the Greeley Haven outcrop onto the sand just below it,” said rover driver Ashley Stroupe of JPL. “It feels good to be on the move again.”

During the period while the rover was stationary, she wasn’t just sleeping. Engineers sent commands for Oppy to use the spectrometers and microscopic imager on its robotic arm to inspect more than a dozen targets within reach on the outcrop. Radio Doppler signals from the stationary rover during the winter months served an investigation of the interior of Mars by providing precise information about the planet’s rotation, a study that scientists were hoping to do with the Spirit rover, but unfortunately she fell silent before they could do the experiment.

Opportunity drove about 12 feet (3.67 meters) on May 8, 2012, after spending 19 weeks working in one place while solar power was too low for driving during the Martian winter. The winter worksite was on the north slope of an outcrop called Greeley Haven. The rover used its rear hazard-avoidance camera after nearly completing the May 8 drive, capturing this view looking back at the Greeley Haven. The dark shape in the foreground is the shadow of Opportunity's solar array. The view is toward the southeast. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

So how is Opportunity’s power supply? As long as the rover stays tilted northward towards the Sun – about 8 degrees is all that’s needed – she will have sufficient power to take short drives.

But unless wind removes some dust from her solar arrays, allowing more sunlight to reach the solar cells, the rover will need to work during the next few weeks at locations with no southward slope. “We’ll head south as soon as power levels are adequate to handle the slopes where we’ll go,” said Mars Exploration Rover Deputy Project Scientist Diana Blaney of JPL.

“Our next goal is a few meters farther north on Cape York, at a bright-looking patch of what may be dust,” said Opportunity science-team member Matt Golombek of JPL. “We haven’t been able to see much dust in Meridiani. This could be a chance to learn more about it.”

Beyond the dust patch, the team intends to use Opportunity to study veins in bedrock around the northern edge of Cape York. A vein inspected before winter contained gypsum deposited long ago by mineral-laden water flowing through a crack in the rock.

As you remember, Opportunity has been going strong for over 9 years now, exploring the Meridiani region of Mars since landing in January 2004. It arrived at the Cape York section of the rim of Endeavour Crater in August 2011, and has been studying rock and soil targets on Cape York since then.

About 

Nancy Atkinson is Universe Today's Senior Editor. She also is the host of the NASA Lunar Science Institute podcast and works with Astronomy Cast. Nancy is also a NASA/JPL Solar System Ambassador.

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Daniel Pritchard May 17, 2012 at 1:51 PM

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mickey_schmidt May 17, 2012 at 6:03 PM

Question? Since the solar panels are always in dangter of getting coated with dust, did anyone designing future missions ever think to have the panels on hinges with a motor to raise them near vertical so the dust could slough off? Or is there static electrical forces to prevent the dust from sliding off?

Torbjörn Larsson May 17, 2012 at 8:37 PM

Answer!?

These rover’s design criteria didn’t include mitigating solar panel power decline from accumulating dust and electrical damages. (As the surface oxidizing agents witness, the thin atmosphere doesn’t do much to protect from UV and cosmic radiation damage.) A projected 90 days nominal mission couldn’t support efforts in that direction.

And the next US rover, Curiosity, is nuclear powered so this isn’t a design concern.

The next rover over [sic], the ESA ExoMars mission launching in 2016, could do with dust mitigation. But I think it goes without, it is the first ESA rover and have other more serious concerns to labor under. Weight penalty being a major one.

There seems to be projects looking on this though. Luckily, a major driver for electrostatic dust mitigation is solar panel technology in general:

“The technology was developed for future rover missions to Mars, but it could work here on Earth to keep solar panels operating at peak capacity. It uses electrostatic charge to repel dust and force it to the edges of the panels. It can remove 90 percent of the dust on a solar panel in a two-minute cycle, says Malay Mazumder, a research professor at Boston University who led the work. “

Torbjörn Larsson May 17, 2012 at 8:20 PM

Here’s to hoping for turning the wheels for another year.

Radio Doppler signals from the stationary rover during the winter months served an investigation of the interior of Mars by providing precise information about the planet’s rotation, a study that scientists were hoping to do with the Spirit rover, but unfortunately she fell silent before they could do the experiment.

This is one good reason why, besides looking for the Endeavour upcast clays and its stratigraphy down the crater. As I understand it, the chances that one winter’s worth of observations will uncover whether Mars core is still liquid (so likely an active mantle) are virtually nil. The next winter should, however, be enough.

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