Dust storms are a serious hazard on Mars. While smaller storms and dust devils happen regularly, larger ones happen every year (during summer in the southern hemisphere) and can cover continent-sized areas for weeks. Once every three Martian years (about five and a half Earth years), the storms can become large enough to encompass the entire planet and last up to two months. These storms play a major role in the dynamic processes that shape the surface of Mars and are sometimes visible from Earth (like the 2018 storm that ended the Opportunity rover’s mission).
When Martian storms become particularly strong, the friction between dust grains causes them to become electrified, transferring positive and negative charges through static electricity. According to research led by planetary scientist Alian Wang at Washington University in St. Louis, this electrical force could be the major driving force of the Martian chlorine cycle. Based on their analysis, Wang and her colleagues believe this process could account for the abundant perchlorates and other chemicals that robotic missions have detected in Martian soil.
Exploring Mars is hazardous work. Robotic missions that are sent there have to contend with extreme temperatures, dust storms, intermittent sunlight, and rough terrain. In recent years, two robotic missions were lost due to dust alone, and all that roving around has done a number on the Curiosity rover’s treads. It’s understandable why mission teams are pleasantly surprised when their missions make it through a rough patch. This was the case with the Ingenuity team when they discovered that the rotorcraft, which has been exploring Mars alongside Perseverance, survived the night and is back in working order.
Testing how robotic helicopters fair in the Martian environment is one of the objectives of Ingenuity, which is the first mission of its kind on Mars. On May 3rd, 2022, the mission team learned that Ingenuity had lost power after trying to keep itself warm during the cold Martian night. Luckily, there was enough sunlight the following morning for the little rotorcraft to power up its batteries again and resume normal operations. This was a welcome relief, given that the Opportunity rover and InSight lander were both lost to the extreme cold and dust that characterize a Martian winter.
There’s no way to sugarcoat it: Mars has a “dust problem.” The surface of the Red Planet is covered in particulate matter consisting of tiny bits of silica and oxidized minerals. During a Martian summer in the southern hemisphere, the planet experiences dust storms that can grow to encompass the entire planet. At other times of the year, dust devils and dusty skies are a persistent problem. This hazard has claimed robotic explorers that rely on solar panels to charge their batteries, like NASA’s Opportunityrover and the InSightlander, which ended their missions in 2018 and 2022, respectively.
Martian dust has also been a persistent challenge for the Ingenuity helicopter, the rotorcraft that has been exploring Mars alongside NASA’s Perseverance rover since February 2021. Luckily, the way it has kicked up dust has provided vital data that could prove invaluable for rotorcraft sent to explore other extraterrestrial environments in the future. Using this data, a team of researchers (with support from NASA) has completed the first real-world study of Martian dust dynamics, which will support missions to Mars and Titan (Saturn’s largest moon) in this and the next decade.
In January 2004, NASA rovers Spirit and Opportunity (aka “Oppy”) landed in two completely different locations on Mars. Their missions were only designed to last 90 sols (approximately 90 Earth days), but they exceeded these parameters, and then some. While Spirit lasted until 2010, Opportunity lasted another astonishing eight years, when it sent its last transmission to Earth in June 2018. During its more than 14-year tenure on the Red Planet, not only did Opportunity gain celebrity status as being the longest serving planetary robotic explorer in history, but it helped reshape our understanding of Mars’ present and past. Now with the help of Amazon Studios and available on Amazon Video, we can re-live the adventure of this incredible rover with Good Night Oppy.
On May 1st, 2009, after five years on the Martian surface, the Spirit rover got stuck in a patch of soft sand (where it would remain for the rest of its mission). On February 13th, 2019, NASA officials declared that Spirit’s sister – the Opportunity rover – had concluded its mission after a planetary dust storm forced it into hibernation mode about seven months prior. And in March 2017, the Curiosity rover’s wheels showed signs of their first break, thanks to years of traveling over rough terrain. Such are the risks of sending rover missions to other planets in search of discoveries that can lead to scientific breakthroughs.
But what constitutes an acceptable risk for a robotic mission, and when are mission controllers justified in taking them? As it turns out, a pair of researchers from the Robotics Institute‘s School of Computer Science at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) in Pittsburgh have developed a new approach for weighing the risks against the scientific value of sending planetary rovers into dangerous situations. The researchers are now working with NASA to implement their approach for future robotic missions to the Moon, Mars, and other potentially-hazardous environments in the Solar System.
A recent blog by Dr. Justin Maki, Imaging Scientist and the Deputy Principal Investigator on the Perseverance rover Mastcam-Z camera, provides a detailed account about the debris the entry, descent, and landing (EDL) system left scattered around the Martian surface while delivering the Perseverance rover to Jezero Crater. This blog highlights how much hardware goes into sending our brave, robotic explorers to the Red Planet while discussing the importance of imaging such debris.
In 2018, Mars experienced one of its global dust storms, a phenomenon seen nowhere else. As science would have it, there were no fewer than six spacecraft in orbit around Mars at the time, and two surface rovers. This was an unprecedented opportunity to watch and study the storm.
Opportunity’s final message home is not much to look at on its own. If you’re old enough to remember film cameras, it looks like the final exposure on a roll of film, developed but partly missing. It’s a suitable epitaph for Opportunity’s mission.
As part of National Geographic Live, Chief Engineer Kobie Boykins of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) has been touring the world of late. As part of the program’s goal of having featured speakers share their behind-the-scenes stories, Boykins has been showcasing the accomplishments of NASA’s Mars robotic exploration programs – of which he played a major role.
This week, his tour brought him to my hometown, where he delivered a presentation to a packed house at the Royal Theatre here in of Victoria, BC. Titled “Exploring Mars”, Boykins shared personal stories of what it was like to be an integral part of the team that created the Sojourner, Spirit, Opportunity, Curiosityand Mars 2020rovers. I had the honor of attending the event, and being able to do a little Q&A with him after the show.
NASA has shared Opportunity’s final photograph from the surface of Mars. The rover’s final resting place is in Endeavour Crater, and barring any statistically unlikely event, it will sit there for centuries, millennia, or even longer. And instead of a tombstone, we have this final image.