An artist’s conception shows NASA’s Opportunity rover under sunnier conditions. (NASA Illustration)
NASA has had to put its power-starved Opportunity rover into an induced coma on Mars, but that drastic maneuver — plus some luck — should be enough to save it from one of the worst dust storms ever observed on the Red Planet.
That doesn’t mean everything’s cool at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., which has overseen the rover’s work on Mars for nearly 15 years.
“We have a very tight emotional connection with it,” John Callas, project manager for the Mars Exploration Rover mission, told GeekWire today during a teleconference.
“It’s like you have a loved one in a coma in the hospital,” he explained. “The doctors are telling you that, ‘OK, you’ve just got to give it time and she’ll wake up. All the vital signs are good, so it’s just waiting it out.’ But if it’s your 97-year-old grandmother, you’re going to be very concerned.”
Fortunately, Opportunity has advantages that your typical 97-year-old grandmother may lack. And that should help the solar-powered rover cope even though Mars’ expanding dust storm has reduced its electricity-generating capability by more than an order of magnitude.
The bad news is that the dust storm has darkened the skies over Opportunity to nearly pitch-black. Richard Zurek, chief scientist for JPL’s Mars Program Office, had to go back to 1971 to name a worse storm.
The good news is that the march of Martian seasons is heading toward summer in the Meridiani Planum region where Opportunity sits. That means temperatures are projected to stay above the range of -40 to -55 degrees Celsius (40 to 67 degrees below zero Fahrenheit), which is considered the minimum for survival of the rover’s electronics package.
Eight plutonium-powered heating units will provide an extra margin of safety, ensuring that the electronics stay warm enough to function.
Opportunity’s twin, the Spirit rover, wasn’t so lucky when it experienced a similar power drain in 2010. That rover’s electronic systems are thought to have frozen to death amid Mars’ wintry weather.
Another bit of good news has to do with Opportunity’s power system. Even after more than 14 years of operation, its batteries can hold 85 percent of the capacity they were designed for, Callas said.
“They are really the finest batteries in the solar system,” he said. “I wish my cellphone battery had half of that.”
A global map of Mars, based on orbital imagery, shows …read more