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A Mars rover  (Source: NASA)

The discovery made on the Red Planet  (Source: NASA)
The Mars rovers continue to impress

NASA this week announced its Mars Exploration Rover Spirit discovered a patch of land on Mars that revealed the possibility of a past environment able to sustain microbial life.

While exploring a scientifically important area of Mars last May, Spirit, while dragging a broken wheel on the surface, discovered a patch of "nearly pure silica" found the Home Plate section of Mars.  Scientists believe it came from a hot-spring or fumarole -- an environment which forces acidic steam to rise through cracks on the planet's surface, also stripping mineral components while leaving only silica behind.

Even though the rovers were not designed to evaluate possible signs of life, each discovery like this one provides pieces to a complicated puzzle on Mars.  Researchers hope to have the opportunity to study this specific location on Home Plate when new missions are launched to the Red Planet.  The Mars Science Laboratory (MSL), scheduled to launch in September 2009, will be NASA's first chance to head back to Home Plate.

"Whichever of those conditions produced it, this concentration of silica is probably the most significant discovery by Spirit for revealing a habitable niche that existed on Mars in the past," said Steve Squyres, principal investigator for data gathered by the rovers.

Spirit now has only two weeks to safely arrive at a sun-facing slope on Home Plate before strong dust storms paralyzes it for the winter.

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RE: A Testament to Good Engineering
By FITCamaro on 12/12/2007 1:08:24 PM , Rating: 5
Lets see here.....which is going to last longer.....a thing that just flies through space, taking measurements and pictures......or an incredibly complex robot that moves across an alien planet, is fueled by solar energy, and can actually interact with its surroundings taking soil samples and what not? About the only thing Voyager I and II had to worry about was getting hit with micro-meteorites or a system failing. The chances of the former happening to something so small are astronomical. Most of Spirit and Opportunities problems have been power related.

While Voyager I and II are remarkable achievements, so are the Spirit and Opportunity. Their life expectancy was only 90 days originally because NASA thought by then, their solar panels would be too covered in dirt to adequately power the robots. However, surface winds of Mars have kept the solar panels of the two relatively dust free until recently.

If Spirit and Opportunity had nuclear power cells like Voyager I and II, their lives would have been far easier since they wouldn't have to rely on whether or not the sun was up. They have to have enough power to keep their internal systems warm or they'll freeze up and stop functioning. Thats hard to do on an alien planet where we can't completely predict the weather.

So before you completely bash modern space exploration, do a little research. And I'm sure NASA would have loved to use nuclear power cells. But with all the environmental activists out there who heavily protest even the slightest bit of radioactive material from being launched into space, they weren't able to. I was in college less than an hour from KSC when those things were launched. I couldn't have cared less if they had nuclear power cells. I think the potential benefits far outweigh the risk. Especially considering that even if the rocket blew up, its not like it'd be an atom bomb going off.

RE: A Testament to Good Engineering
By maven81 on 12/12/2007 1:30:21 PM , Rating: 2
If I remember correctly the voyager missions were not without their share of close calls either... shortly into the mission Voyager IIs main receiver failed, the computer switched to the backup, then the backup failed, and it was switched back to the primary. I think it may have went another round even... The people on the ground nearly lost contact with it, but eventually managed to solve the problem.

RE: A Testament to Good Engineering
By timmiser on 12/12/2007 1:58:00 PM , Rating: 1
Well, that is exactly why they shouldn't be putting a life expectancy on any mission such as this because of the unkown factors that nobody can predict. They knew beforehand that the design of the rovers could go on indefintely and should have left it at that. The wheels turn, the solar panels recharge, the things keep going...

By saying 90 days and then saying it has been a huge and unexpected sucess because they have exceeded the original 90 day estimate, does sound hyperbolic to me.

RE: A Testament to Good Engineering
By MrTeal on 12/12/2007 2:18:23 PM , Rating: 4
I think these sort of things might be due to the approval process. When they're looking for the money, they say the mission is slated to last 90 days, we're expecting to be able to gather X amount of data, can we have the money.

If the mission lasts the 90 days and collects enough information, it was a success and in the eyes of the people who greenlighted it, the data collected paid the cost of the mission. If it goes longer, great.

RE: A Testament to Good Engineering
By ChristopherO on 12/12/2007 4:45:02 PM , Rating: 2
True, and they can be at risk for having their funding pulled. For instance they document a desire for 90-days of science, they fulfill that, and a pinhead decides they want to plug the money pit.

I seriously doubt Spirit and Opportunity would have these problems because they represent a scientific icon at this point. Less glamorous projects lose funding all the time.

Another thing, everyone keeps talking about the 90-day window. In all fairness, the original rover didn't hold up nearly as well. I don't know if they know the reason for its failure, but it is better to go in and assume a limited lifespan. No one wants to go to Mars, plan for two years of science, and have a freak weather system permanently shroud the solar panels in dust.

Side note: Why didn't they put a "solar panel wiper" on the thing? One would think a remote controlled rubber squeegee wouldn't have been too big of a design issue, compared to the 100 million mile voyage and all...

RE: A Testament to Good Engineering
By Aiserou on 12/12/2007 4:58:42 PM , Rating: 2
Side note: Why didn't they put a "solar panel wiper" on the thing? One would think a remote controlled rubber squeegee wouldn't have been too big of a design issue, compared to the 100 million mile voyage and all...

Solar panels aren't a smooth surface, you can't squeegee them without potentially ripping out individual cells. You could put a glass cover over them,, but that would add a lot of weight, a lot more design issues since the panels were designed to fold out, and glass is pretty fragile for things like take-off, re-entry, and bouncing across the terrain in a balloon. I'm not saying it's not possible, but it's certainly not as trivial as it sounds.

By ChristopherO on 12/12/2007 6:36:19 PM , Rating: 2
I was thinking acrylic. You could have a track running the length of the panel on both sides, once per day a buffing device could make a single pass over the surface. This presumes rectangular panels, or a buffer that could expand over a surface of varying width.

Even a small high-rpm blower might work. I know the atmospheric density is much lower, but it seems like there are thousands of possible solutions given that dust-on-the-panels seems to be the biggest problem with long-term survivability. It doesn't need to be squeaky clean, just "enough."

The only thing I can think of is that they really did build it for 90-days and are genuinely stunned they made it this long. I can't blame them; we can't reliably predict hurricanes on our own planet. I'm thinking Martian weather is a bit touchier.

RE: A Testament to Good Engineering
By Aiserou on 12/12/2007 4:52:24 PM , Rating: 2
The point is, the people who made the life expectancy were the engineers, not the mission coordinators. The engineers had to be able to say this machine will work for x amount of days, so that the mission coordinators could take that number and plan as much as possible into that x amount of days. Anything after that is just icing on the cake, but they had to make sure they accomplished what they needed before the guaranteed time ran out.

It has been a huge and unexpected success. Find my other post about wind cleaning the solar panels to explain why.

RE: A Testament to Good Engineering
By timmiser on 12/12/2007 5:43:09 PM , Rating: 2
What do you mean by "guaranteed time"? Nobody could guarantee anything. Not 1 day or 10 years. That is the whole point.

RE: A Testament to Good Engineering
By Aiserou on 12/12/2007 10:45:51 PM , Rating: 2
Ok, yea, that was the wrong word to use. But the point stands, they had to have a set amount of time they could plan for.

RE: A Testament to Good Engineering
By BSMonitor on 12/12/2007 3:11:03 PM , Rating: 3
The immense gravity of the 4 gas giant planets.... No problem. Why worry about that? Especially considering the delay between sending a command and receiving data.

But even if the Voyagers run out of power, they will still keep going. They just can't communicate with us any more.

Maybe someday, we can send another probe to go and look for them. One that travels a little faster of course.

What we really need is for Crighton to just give us that damn wormhole technology!

By FITCamaro on 12/12/2007 5:19:40 PM , Rating: 2
Gravity can be calculated. As can transmission time for a a signal to get to a probe. Both probe's courses were calculated before they ever lifted off. I forget which one was rerouted to get a look at other planets but again, lots of calculations were done and checked.

RE: A Testament to Good Engineering
By timmiser on 12/12/2007 5:48:30 PM , Rating: 2
Maybe someday, we can send another probe to go and look for them. One that travels a little faster of course.

Maybe we can send a manned probe and call it The Enterprise.

"I'd be pissed too, but you didn't have to go all Minority Report on his ass!" -- Jon Stewart on police raiding Gizmodo editor Jason Chen's home
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