NASA’s Opportunity Rover Withstands Another Harsh Winter on Mars

When the Opportunity rover landed on Mars on January 25th, 2004, its mission was only meant to last for about 90 Earth days. But the little rover that could has exceeded all expectations by remaining in operation (as of the writing of this article) for a total of 13 years and 231 days and traveled a total of about 50 km (28 mi). Basically, Opportunity has continued to remain mobile and gather scientific data 50 times longer than its designated lifespan.

And according to a recent announcement from NASA’s Mars Exploration Program (MEP), the rover managed to survive yet another winter on Mars. Having endured the its eight Martian winter in a row, and with its solar panels in encouragingly clean condition, the rover will be in good shape for the coming dust-storm season. It also means the rover will live to see its 14th anniversary, which will take place on January 25th, 2018.

On Mars, a single year lasts the equivalent of 686.971 Earth days (or 1.88 Earth years). And since Mars’ axis is inclined 25.19° to its orbital plane (compared to Earth’s axial tilt of just over 23°), Mars also experiences seasons. However, these tend to last about twice as long as the seasons on Earth. And of course, the seasons on Mars’ are also much colder, with temperatures averaging about -63 °C (-82°F).

Enhanced-color view of ground sloping downward to the right in “Perseverance Valley”, taken by the Pancam on the Opportunity rover in October of 2017. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell Univ./Arizona State Univ

As Jennifer Herman, the power subsystem operations team lead for Opportunity at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, recalled in a NASA MEP press statement:

“I didn’t start working on this project until about Sol 300, and I was told not to get too settled in because Spirit and Opportunity probably wouldn’t make it through that first Martian winter. Now, Opportunity has made it through the worst part of its eighth Martian winter.”

At present, both the Opportunity and Spirit rover are in Mars’ southern hemisphere. Here, the Sun appears in the northern sky during the fall and winter, so the rovers need to tilt their solar-arrays northward. Back in 2004, the Spirit rover had lost the use of two of its wheels, and could therefore not maneuver out of a sand trap it had become stuck in. As such, it was unable to tilt itself northward and did not survive its fourth Martian winter (in 2009).

However, Opportunity’s current position – Perseverance Valley, a fluid-carved region on the inner slope at the edge of the Endeavour Crater – meant that it was well-positioned to keep working through late fall and early winter this year. This was ensured by the stops the rover made at energy-favorable locations, where it would inspect local rocks, examine the valley’s shape and image the surrounding area, all the while absorbing ample energy from the Sun.

Image of the floor of Endeavour Crater, taken by NASA’s Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity on Nov. 11th, 2017, about a week before Opportunity’s eighth Martian winter solstice. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell Univ./Arizona State Univ

Five months ago, the rover entered the top of the valley, which runs eastward down the inner slope of the Endurance Crater’s western rim. Since that time, Opportunity has been conducting stops between drives at north-facing sites, which are situated along the southern edge of the channel. The rover team calls the sites “lily pads”, since these places are spots that the rover need to hop across during its mission.

This is necessary, given that Opportunity does not rely on a radioisotope thermoelectric generator like Curiosity does. While winter conditions affect the use of electrical heaters and batteries on both rovers, Opportunity is different in that it’s activities are more subject to seasonal change. Whereas Curiosity will simply allocate less energy to performing tasks in the winter, Opportunity needs to pick its routes to ensure it stays powered up.

During some of its previous winters, the Opportunity rover was not as well-situated as it currently is. During its fifth winter (2011-2012) the rover spent 19 weeks at one spot because no other places that allowed for a northward-facing tilt were available within driving distance. On the other hand, its first winter (2004-2005) was spent in the southern half of the Endurance Crater, where all grounds are favorable since they face north.

As the person who is chiefly responsible for advising other mission scientists on how much energy Opportunity has available on each Martian day (sol) for conducting activities like driving and observing – a task she performs for Curiosity as well – Herman understand the relationship between power usage and the seasons all too well. “Relying on solar energy for Opportunity keeps us constantly aware of the season on Mars and the terrain that the rover is on, more than for Curiosity,” she said.

A self-portrait of the Opportunity rover shortly after dust cleared its solar panels in March 2014. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell Univ./Arizona State Univ.

Another factor which can influence Opportunity‘s power supply is how much dust is in the sky and how much of it gets onto the rover’s solar arrays. This is highly-dependent on prevailing wind conditions, which can both stir up dust storms and clear away dust deposits on the rover – basically, they are a real mixed blessing! During autumn and winter in the southern-hemisphere, the skies are generally clear where Opportunity operates.

Spring and summer is when the storms are most common in Mars’ southern hemisphere, though they don’t happen every year. The latest example took place in 2007, which led to a severe reduction in the amount of sunlight (and hence, solar energy) Spirit and Opportunity were able to receive. This required both rovers to enact emergency protocols and reduce the amount of operations and communications they conducted.

The amount of dust on the rover’s solar arrays going into autumn can also vary from year to year. This year, the array was dustier than in all but one of the previous Martian autumns it experienced. Luckily, as Herman explained, things worked out for the rover:

“We were worried that the dust accumulation this winter would be similar to some of the worst winters we’ve had, and that we might come out of the winter with a very dusty array, but we’ve had some recent dust cleaning that was nice to see. Now I’m more optimistic. If Opportunity’s solar arrays keep getting cleaned as they have recently, she’ll be in a good position to survive a major dust storm. It’s been more than 10 Earth years since the last one and we need to be vigilant.”

Image of the Opportunity rover’s front wheel, taken on June 9th, 2004, inside the Endurance Crater. Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell

In the coming months, the Opportunity team hopes to investigate how the Perseverance Valley was cut into the rim of the Endeavor crater. As Matt Golombek, an Opportunity Project Scientist at JPL, related:

“We have not been seeing anything screamingly diagnostic, in the valley itself, about how much water was involved in the flow. We may get good diagnostic clues from the deposits at the bottom of the valley, but we don’t want to be there yet, because that’s level ground with no more lily pads.”

With its eighth winter finished and Opportunity still in good working order, we can expect the tenacious rover to keep turning up interesting finds on Mars. These include clues about Mars’ warmer, wetter past, which likely included a standing body of water in the Endeavor crater. And assuming conditions are favorable in the coming year, we can expect that Opportunity will continue to push the boundaries of both science and its own endurance!

Further Reading: NASA

The Orbit of Mars. How Long is a Year on Mars?

Mars and Earth have quite a few things in common. Both are terrestrial planets, both are located within the Sun’s habitable zone, both have polar ice caps, similarly tilted axes, and similar variations in temperature. And according to some of the latest scientific data obtained by rovers and atmospheric probes, it is now known that Mars once had a dense atmosphere and was covered with warm, flowing water.

But when it comes to things like the length of a year, and the length of seasons, Mars and Earth are quite different. Compared to Earth, a year on Mars lasts almost twice as long – 686.98 Earth days. This is due to the fact that Mars is significantly farther from the Sun and its orbital period (the time it takes to orbit the Sun) is significantly greater than that of Earth’s.

Orbital Period:

Mars average distance (semi-major axis) from the Sun is 227,939,200 km (141,634,852.46 mi) which is roughly one and half times the distance between the Earth and the Sun (1.52 AU). Compared to Earth, its orbit is also rather eccentric (0.0934 vs. 0.0167), ranging from 206.7 million km (128,437,425.435 mi; 1.3814 AU) at perihelion to 249.2 million km (154,845,701 mi; 1.666 AU) at aphelion. At this distance, and with an orbital speed of 24.077 km/s, Mars takes 686.971 Earth days, the equivalent of 1.88 Earth years, to complete a orbit around the Sun.

The eccentricity in Mars' orbit means that it is . Credit: NASA
The eccentricity in Mars’ orbit means that it is . Credit: NASA

This eccentricity is one of the most pronounced in the Solar System, with only Mercury having a greater one (0.205). However, this wasn’t always the case. Roughly 1.35 million years ago, Mars had an eccentricity of just 0.002, making its orbit nearly circular. It reached a minimum eccentricity of 0.079 some 19,000 years ago, and will peak at about 0.105 in about 24,000 years from now.

But for the last 35,000 years, the orbit of Mars has been getting slightly more eccentric because of the gravitational effects of the other planets. The closest distance between Earth and Mars will continue to mildly decrease for the next 25,000 years. And in about 1,000,000 years from now, its eccentricity will once again be close to what it is now – with an estimated eccentricity of 0.01.

Earth Days vs. Martian “Sols”:

Whereas a year on Mars is significantly longer than a year on Earth, the difference between an day on Earth and a Martian day (aka. “Sol”) is not significant. For starters, Mars takes 24 hours 37 minutes and 22 seconds to complete a single rotation on its axis (aka. a sidereal day), where Earth takes just slightly less (23 hours, 56 minutes and 4.1 seconds).

On the other hand, it takes 24 hours, 39 minutes, and 35 seconds for the Sun to appear in the same spot in the sky above Mars (aka. a solar day), compared to the 24 hour solar day we experience here on Earth. This means that, based on the length of a Martian day, a Martian year works out to 668.5991 Sols.

The Opportunity rover captured this analemma showing the Sun's movements over one Martian year. Images taken every third sol (Martian day) between July, 16, 2006 and June 2, 2008. Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/ASU/TAMU
The Opportunity rover captured this analemma showing the Sun’s movements over one Martian year. Images taken every third sol (Martian day) between July, 16, 2006 and June 2, 2008. Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/ASU/TAMU

Seasonal Variations:

Mars also has a seasonal cycle that is similar to that of Earth’s. This is due in part to the fact that Mars also has a tilted axis, which is inclined 25.19° to its orbital plane (compared to Earth’s axial tilt of approx. 23.44°). It’s also due to Mars orbital eccentricity, which means it will periodically receive less in the way of the Sun’s radiance during at one time of the year than another. This change in distance causes significant variations in temperature.

While the planet’s average temperature is -46 °C (51 °F), this ranges from a low of -143 °C (-225.4 °F) during the winter at the poles to a high of 35 °C (95 °F) during summer and midday at the equator. This works out to a variation in average surface temperature that is quite similar to Earth’s – a difference of 178 °C (320.4 °F) versus 145.9 °C (262.5 °F). This high in temperatures is also what allows for liquid water to still flow (albeit intermittently) on the surface of Mars.

In addition, Mars’ eccentricity means that it travels more slowly in its orbit when it is further from the Sun, and more quickly when it is closer (as stated in Kepler’s Three Laws of Planetary Motion). Mars’ aphelion coincides with Spring in its northern hemisphere, which makes it the longest season on the planet – lasting roughly 7 Earth months. Summer is second longest, lasting six months, while Fall and Winter last 5.3 and just over 4 months, respectively.

Artist's impression of the seasons on Mars. Credit:
Artist’s impression of the seasons on Mars. Credit:

In the south, the length of the seasons is only slightly different. Mars is near perihelion when it is summer in the southern hemisphere and winter in the north, and near aphelion when it is winter in the southern hemisphere and summer in the north. As a result, the seasons in the southern hemisphere are more extreme and the seasons in the northern are milder. The summer temperatures in the south can be up to 30 K (30 °C; 54 °F) warmer than the equivalent summer temperatures in the north.

Weather Patterns:

These seasonal variations allow Mars to experience some extremes in weather. Most notably, Mars has the largest dust storms in the Solar System. These can vary from a storm over a small area to gigantic storms (thousands of km in diameter) that cover the entire planet and obscure the surface from view. They tend to occur when Mars is closest to the Sun, and have been shown to increase the global temperature.

The first mission to notice this was the Mariner 9 orbiter, which was the first spacecraft to orbit Mars in 1971, it sent pictures back to Earth of a world consumed in haze. The entire planet was covered by a dust storm so massive that only Olympus Mons, the giant Martian volcano that measures 24 km high, could be seen above the clouds. This storm lasted for a full month, and delayed Mariner 9‘s attempts to photograph the planet in detail.

And then on June 9th, 2001, the Hubble Space Telescope spotted a dust storm in the Hellas Basin on Mars. By July, the storm had died down, but then grew again to become the largest storm in 25 years. So big was the storm that amateur astronomers using small telescopes were able to see it from Earth. And the cloud raised the temperature of the frigid Martian atmosphere by a stunning 30° Celsius.

These storms tend to occur when Mars is closest to the Sun, and are the result of temperatures rising and triggering changes in the air and soil. As the soil dries, it becomes more easily picked up by air currents, which are caused by pressure changes due to increased heat. The dust storms cause temperatures to rise even further, leading to Mars’ experiencing its own greenhouse effect.

Given the differences in seasons and day length, one is left to wonder if a standard Martian calendar could ever be developed. In truth, it could, but it would be a bit of a challenge. For one, a Martian calendar would have to account for Mars’ peculiar astronomical cycles, and our own non-astronomical cycles like the 7-day week work with them.

Another consideration in designing a calendar is accounting for the fractional number of days in a year. Earth’s year is 365.24219 days long, and so calendar years contain either 365 or 366 days accordingly. Such a formula would need to be developed to account for the 668.5921-sol Martian year. All of this will certainly become an issue as human beings become more and more committed to exploring (and perhaps colonizing) the Red Planet.

We have written many interesting articles about Mars here at Universe Today. Here’s How Long is a Year on the Other Planets?, Which Planet has the Longest Day?, How Long is a Year on Mercury, How Long is a Year on Earth?, How Long is a Year on Venus?, How Long is a Year on Jupiter?, How Long is a Year on Saturn?, How Long is a Year on Uranus?, How Long is a Year on Neptune?, How Long is a Year on Pluto?

For more information, check out NASA’s Solar System Exploration page on Mars.

Astronomy Cast also has several interesting episodes on the subject. Like Episode 52: Mars, and Episode 91: The Search for Water on Mars.