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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 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.

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