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Martian dust storm covers Spirit's solar panels in dust

This has proven to be a bad week for NASA rovers patrolling Mars. NASA has several rovers on the surface of Mars performing various missions including looking for water and existence of ice on the red planet.

Yesterday, NASA announced that it had lost communications with the Phoenix lander and had no expectations of the lander surviving the inhospitable Martian winter. Despite the fact that the rover has been declared dead by NASA, the Phoenix mission was a success and lasted longer than originally planned by NASA.

Today, NASA has announced that the Spirit rover is also in jeopardy of failing. Lack of sunlight hitting the solar panels of Spirit is causing serious concern at NASA. According to scientists on the mission, Spirit only produced 89 watt-hours of energy last weekend, which is half the amount of power the rover needs for full performance.

The reason for the drop in power production is a massive dust storm that deposited Martian dust on the solar panels and prevented sunlight form reaching them. Spirit's mission began in 2003 when it was sent to the red planet to search for clues on past water on the surface of the planet.

To help conserve power and prevent Spirit from running its batteries dry, NASA instructed the rover to turn off several heaters designed to keep scientific instruments warm. The rover was also ordered to stop communicating with Earth until Thursday.

NASA says that if it doesn't hear form Spirit on Thursday it will be extremely concerned. Scientists hope Spirit will make it, the dust storms over it position have abated. It's not known if the storm caused damage to any of the rover's instruments at this time or if the rover will be able to move again due to the dust on the panels.

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Longer then expected...
By abraxas1 on 11/12/2008 1:13:46 PM , Rating: 4
There's "Longer then expected", then there's "Holy WTF"

I think the rovers have reached the "Holy WTF" status when it comes to life expectancy.

RE: Longer then expected...
By JBird7986 on 11/12/2008 1:18:24 PM , Rating: 4
I'd say so...January 2009 makes what, five years out of what was supposed to be a 90-day mission? Heck...even the Enterprise only went on five-year missions! ;)

RE: Longer then expected...
By amanojaku on 11/12/2008 1:30:49 PM , Rating: 1
That was original Enterprise, and it was only one mission. Successors went on a continuing mission.

RE: Longer then expected...
By Tsuwamono on 11/12/2008 2:18:50 PM , Rating: 2
NC-01 is the first and therefore can be refered to with only the designation Enterprise. all others should require Enterprise A, B, C, D, E, etc.

RE: Longer then expected...
By quiksilvr on 11/12/2008 2:43:57 PM , Rating: 4
Oh dear God...

RE: Longer then expected...
By FITCamaro on 11/12/2008 4:21:10 PM , Rating: 2
Which is more entertaining? Cripple fight or nerd fight?

RE: Longer then expected...
By Aquila76 on 11/12/2008 5:16:30 PM , Rating: 5
How about a crippled nerd fight?

Stephen Hawking vs. Davros


RE: Longer then expected...
By quiksilvr on 11/12/2008 5:18:23 PM , Rating: 2
Dammit you beat me to it!

RE: Longer then expected...
By jgvandemeer on 11/12/2008 7:03:41 PM , Rating: 2
I had to google that Davros reference. Guess I'm out of touch on geek-cultural references.

RE: Longer then expected...
By Souka on 11/13/2008 11:13:19 AM , Rating: 2's been around for what... 30yrs? Plus was it re-kindled in the recent re-do of Dr. Who?

RE: Longer then expected...
By quiksilvr on 11/12/2008 5:17:54 PM , Rating: 3
RE: Longer then expected...
By ultimatebob on 11/12/2008 3:15:38 PM , Rating: 3
Wow... not only was that comment geeky as hell, it was wrong! The "original" Enterprise (the one with Kirk and Spock on it) was NCC-1701... no bloody A,B,C,D, or E!

RE: Longer then expected...
By Belard on 11/12/2008 4:27:17 PM , Rating: 2
When does the 1701-F come out?

RE: Longer then expected...
By BBeltrami on 11/12/2008 6:02:34 PM , Rating: 5
Whenever my wife pulls my finger.

RE: Longer then expected...
By Belard on 11/13/2008 6:10:49 AM , Rating: 2
I'm not kidding...

Just as this page loaded up and was reading what you posted... I farted.

WOW! OMG! You Betcha!

RE: Longer then expected...
By blazeoptimus on 11/12/2008 3:59:03 PM , Rating: 3
Not only that, but if he was referring to the show "Star Trek: Enterprise" The designation was actually NX-01 (being that it was still partially a prototype). NCC wasn't supposed to be in used till the TOS era in the Star Trek Universe.

And yes, I do watch "The Big Bang Theory" for the Star Trek jokes.

RE: Longer then expected...
By FreeTard on 11/12/2008 3:22:16 PM , Rating: 2
It is kind of a dissapointment, but they've been on borrowed time for a long time now. It can't honestly be considered earth shattering for Nasa.

It is kind of sad that the mission may finally end. I think it was one of the last really popular, highly publicized (positive) events for NASA.

RE: Longer then expected...
By Reclaimer77 on 11/13/2008 12:39:28 AM , Rating: 2
I think its sad that the geniuses at Nasa couldn't put windshield wipers on this trillion dollar project.

What a lack of foresight on Nasa's part. That a rover landing on a planet which has an atmosphere comprised almost entirely of dust storms, would fall prey to dust. Man, who could have seen that coming right ?

RE: Longer then expected...
By geddarkstorm on 11/13/2008 1:03:20 PM , Rating: 3
They expected the dust to kill the rover by the end of its 90 day mission - the fact it survived almost five years (!!) now was a total shock to engineers. Not to mention all the gears and heaters and other instruments that were designed only for 90 days but have lasted this long and through many dust storms. It's a true testament to engineering the right way.

For weight, space, and complexity reasons, there was no need for wipers.

RE: Longer then expected...
By rudolphna on 11/12/2008 8:05:18 PM , Rating: 4
Nah, I think Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 are at the Holy WTF point of life expectancy, and they are expected to keep going until 2020, possibly 2025.

RE: Longer then expected...
By ViroMan on 11/12/2008 9:54:59 PM , Rating: 2
You know... you would think they would have learned there lesson and invented some kind of way to wipe off the solar panels by now.

RE: Longer then expected...
By geddarkstorm on 11/13/2008 1:06:39 PM , Rating: 3
Or put them at a slightly oblique angle. But, then again, when anything that was designed from the ground up to only last a mere 90 days (three months) lasts nearly five years instead, it makes it seem silly to nit pick their design.

RE: Longer then expected...
By 91TTZ on 11/13/08, Rating: -1
By RabidDog on 11/12/2008 1:27:14 PM , Rating: 5
This has proven to be a bad week for NASA rovers patrolling Mars. NASA has several rovers on the surface of Mars

Pheonix is not a rover. It's a lander that stays in one place.
Please name the several rovers the NASA has in opperation on Mars.

RE: Clarification?
By abraxas1 on 11/12/2008 1:29:47 PM , Rating: 3
Can't forget the secret rovers. I hear they're called OSAMA-1 and OSAMA-2. I wonder what they're looking for?

RE: Clarification?
By Motoman on 11/12/2008 1:37:54 PM , Rating: 5
Their heads in their asses.

RE: Clarification?
By FreeTard on 11/12/2008 5:04:51 PM , Rating: 5
If those were the names, then you can bet that nobody would ever find them, even after ~7 years of searching. They'd immediately dissapear into a cave and send random broadcasts every few months to scare us.

We really don't need Mars getting a higher terror level... it's already permanently Red.

RE: Clarification?
By fstar1 on 11/12/2008 9:03:57 PM , Rating: 2
And here I thought Osama was hiding in Pakistan. No wonder we can't find him.

RE: Clarification?
By foolsgambit11 on 11/12/2008 8:42:48 PM , Rating: 2
But isn't there another rover on the planet? I thought there were two rovers and one lander that were formerly currently in operation, if you get my drift.

RE: Clarification?
By Clauzii on 11/12/2008 9:56:13 PM , Rating: 2
Mars Microrover, yes. It went there on the Mars Pathfinder mission, but is not operational anymore.

RE: Clarification?
By VaultDweller on 11/13/2008 8:22:31 AM , Rating: 2
Yes, Spirit has a sister rover, Opportunity, that was part of the same mission. It landed three weeks later than Spirit, and is still operational.

Best solution
By omgwtf8888 on 11/12/2008 1:50:13 PM , Rating: 1
A Dome would be heavy and impractical, same with a wiper. The motor and electricity needed to power it would be prohibitive. The cleaner solution would have been to use a concept similar to that used on motorsport helmets. They employ a series of clear transparancies that can be ripped off one layer at a time to keep helmet sceens visible.

RE: Best solution
By SpaceJumper on 11/12/2008 2:40:24 PM , Rating: 3
Space grade solar panels have the micro-dome lens that designed to capture light at all angles. Putting multi-layers of diffraction will reduce the light intensity and light capturing capability. Peeling it off requires a dependency of a secondary mechanical arm. I am sure NASA went through many very vigorous PDR (Preliminary Design Review) and CDR (Critical Design Review) prior to the production of these Rovers.

RE: Best solution
By FITCamaro on 11/12/2008 4:22:59 PM , Rating: 5
No the best solution is to ignore the hippies and make future probes nuclear powered. This way they can run for 50 years with far more power and they won't have to care about the weather.

RE: Best solution
By Grast on 11/12/2008 5:35:48 PM , Rating: 2
Here here, my exact thought as I am reading these responses.

RE: Best solution
By arazok on 11/12/2008 5:54:15 PM , Rating: 3
They have plans for a nuclear version - it may be canceled, but I imagine NASA will find the funding.

RE: Best solution
By rudolphna on 11/12/2008 8:09:07 PM , Rating: 3
Exactly! Its the same idea as what Voyagers 1 and 2 used. Which are radio isotope thermoelectric generators. Which basically is harnessing the heat generated by nuclear decay. Voyager will still be going until 2020, 40 some odd years after they were launched. No maintence, no water needed, unlike traditional nuclear power. (Im a Voyager Buff :D )

RE: Best solution
By tjr508 on 11/13/08, Rating: 0
RE: Best solution
By teldar on 11/13/2008 12:56:30 PM , Rating: 2
A conventional explosion is NOT the same as a nuclear explosion.
The amount of radioactive material that would be spread in a situation like that is nowhere near enough to consider it a huge issue.

I am smarter than a NASA engineer
By PAPutzback on 11/12/2008 1:17:12 PM , Rating: 2
Perhaps when the battery level drops to a certain point it should go into a low power state and occasionaly fire up a sensor to see if there is enough light to come back on to full power. Or have a battery backup to only be used for this state.

Also. When the weather is bad why didn't they rotate the panels to be upside down so dust doesn't land on them.

It sounds like the beginning to a SciFi movie where the last image sent back were 3 alien life forms approaching the unit.

By abraxas1 on 11/12/2008 1:26:18 PM , Rating: 4
It actually does go into a low power state during the martian winter. There are critical components that need to be maintained at a certain temperature. If minimal power isn't available to keep these parts warm, then the rover will surely die. Additional batteries would have added weight.

Being able to rotate the panels also adds weight and complexity. Simple is better and the rovers have proven it.

By SpaceJumper on 11/12/2008 2:47:27 PM , Rating: 2
It is easier to fold the solar panels than rotate them upside down during the dust storm. The electrically charged dust will still be attached to the panels even if they were upside down.

RE: I am smarter than a NASA engineer
By Hare on 11/12/2008 3:43:54 PM , Rating: 3
I would somehow assume that all the rocket scientists did in fact think about these trivial measures and employed all possible means to combat dust...

By AntiV6 on 11/12/2008 1:10:00 PM , Rating: 2
Spirit, we hardly knew ye. :(

RE: Nooo
By V3ctorPT on 11/12/2008 1:21:39 PM , Rating: 2
Why didn't they put wipers on the solar panels?... wax on, wax off...

RE: Nooo
By geddarkstorm on 11/13/2008 1:11:32 PM , Rating: 3
Hardly knew ye? This things is the proverbial energizer bunny! It was never, in any one's wildest imagination, meant to last this long.

By JonnyDough on 11/12/2008 2:42:24 PM , Rating: 2
Why didn't they implement a spin feature? It needs a swivel mount system like tanks have, or even if just the panels could shake or something. You would think that physics 101 would have produced some sort of foresight to this problem of "dust collecting." Inertia or whatever. I never actually took physics in school, but then I don't work for freakin' NASA as a rocket scientist either. We have automatic robotic vacuums here made by iRobot for "fixing dust problems." Why hasn't NASA been able to conquer this little issue? Maybe iRobot should be designing our Mars probes instead.

By masher2 on 11/12/2008 3:10:14 PM , Rating: 3
> "Why didn't they implement a spin feature?"

The size, weight, complexity, and power usage of a motor/joint assembly powerful enough to spin off electrically charged dust would have been prohibitive.

> "Why hasn't NASA been able to conquer this little issue?"

They designed for a 90 day mission. It actually lasted nearly 5 years. I'd say they conquered the problem fairly well.

Were they planning a 10-year mission, I'm sure they would have included dust mitigation features...possibly just the simple expedient of electrostatically repelling the dust now and then.

By JonnyDough on 11/12/08, Rating: 0
The twins fate
By kontorotsui on 11/12/2008 1:11:09 PM , Rating: 2
Twins often die very close.

RE: The twins fate
By Ratwar on 11/12/2008 1:16:13 PM , Rating: 2
Opportunity is Spirit's twin, not Phoenix.

Just Maybes
By Chipper Smoltz DT on 11/12/2008 8:09:54 PM , Rating: 2
Maybe they could design future rovers or landers with special tilting solar panels attached to servo motors that would be able to tilt at an angle the solar panels so that the dust could go to the ground.

Or like many have suggested they could make "wipers" for these solar panels so that the accumulated dust could be wiped off - much like the wiper of a car.

Another alternative is to make a robotic vacuum cleaner arm for the rover / lander so that the dust in the solar panels could be cleaned and spewed out.

Maybe they could coat the solar panels with a coating that dust or other particles would not adhere to... like a special "stuff" or special "something". So that should Martian winds blow, the dust would not accumulate on the solar panels and would eventually blow the dust off. A special lubricant or coating that would not affect the efficiency of the solar panels.

Am sure with our inputs and NASA's ingenuity, they could solve all of these problems. So far, the Spirit has surpassed its intended mission life and that's worth more than anything.

Just some crazy ideas from me. Ho-hum

RE: Just Maybes
By geddarkstorm on 11/13/2008 1:17:07 PM , Rating: 2
NASA engineers aren't chumps. As has been said all over everywhere, this a little issue called weight when launching things into space. As weight goes up, cost goes up exponentially. Moreover, complex systems like wipers require servos and power - that only means there are more things that can break down. A vacuum would be seriously way more complex, and much heavier even than wipers.

Most likely, these solar panels do have a special coating that does exactly like you were saying - after all, they were expected to die after 90 days but have lasted almost 5 years and through several dust storms, that's a huge feat. Why this particular storm laid the lander low will be an interesting question for scientists and engineers to mull over.

By Comdrpopnfresh on 11/12/2008 4:16:27 PM , Rating: 2
Like a rubber or nylon blade to swipe across the pv-panel and remove the dust? Was it overlooked, impractical, or deemed unnecessary give the original duration of the mission?

If they were smart
By Belard on 11/12/2008 4:34:54 PM , Rating: 2
Nasa should have gone to GM and installed a pair of wipers for the solar panels. ;)

- Shakers that vibrate the sand off... since its so fine or
- Compressed Air to blow it off.

Since when did Phoenix become a rover?

Compressed Air?
By Darkk on 11/12/2008 10:45:25 PM , Rating: 2
Seems having a small tank with compressed air could easily disperse the excess dust off the solar panels. Only problem is there is no real way of recharging the air tank so it can only be used in emergency situations.

By 91TTZ on 11/13/2008 2:53:04 PM , Rating: 2
This has proven to be a bad week for NASA rovers patrolling Mars

How so? The other thing that failed isn't a rover at all, so that in no way contributes to a "bad week for NASA rovers".

Windshield Vipers for panels.
By Serhan Ogan on 11/17/2008 5:45:28 AM , Rating: 2
Among all those high-tech gear and numerous gadgets it seems like a pair of windshield vipers on the sun panels are the most needed yet missing equipment.

all this money spent
By Screwballl on 11/12/08, Rating: -1
RE: all this money spent
By Ratwar on 11/12/2008 1:18:13 PM , Rating: 2
You have a nuclear reactor light enough to fit in a 408 lb rover?

RE: all this money spent
By amanojaku on 11/12/2008 1:26:43 PM , Rating: 2
RE: all this money spent
By Ratwar on 11/12/2008 1:30:41 PM , Rating: 5
Good Point, let me rephrase that:

Do you have a DeLorean with a Flux Capacitor?

RE: all this money spent
By amanojaku on 11/12/2008 1:33:01 PM , Rating: 1
Yes. I also have an intelligent supermodel harem, self-replicating money, and a computer with infinite everything.

RE: all this money spent
By masher2 on 11/12/2008 1:35:11 PM , Rating: 2
We've had nuclear RTGs capable of powering devices like this for decades. NASA shies away from using them as much as possible, though, due to public outcry anything "radioactive" is included in a mission.

RE: all this money spent
By amanojaku on 11/12/2008 1:41:30 PM , Rating: 1
What, are we poisoning space now? That's the dumbest thing I've head in five minutes. Space is full of radiation! John Q. Public can be really amazing at times. No wonder Paris Hilton has another TV show.

RE: all this money spent
By abraxas1 on 11/12/2008 1:48:10 PM , Rating: 2
The fear is more like, what happens if it blows up during launch in our atmosphere.

RE: all this money spent
By masher2 on 11/12/2008 1:50:16 PM , Rating: 4
The nuclear RTG aboard Apollo 13 survived catastrophic reentry into the atmosphere and a crash landing without any release of radiation...and that was with 1970-era materials and technology.

RE: all this money spent
By Myg on 11/12/2008 2:15:07 PM , Rating: 2
Lady luck favours those who don't try too hard with chance.

RE: all this money spent
By PedroDaGr8 on 11/12/2008 2:21:11 PM , Rating: 3
Lady luck also favors those who are prepared. If we test it under a wide range of drastic scenarios, then we can start to really take luck out of the equation and instead it only a small chance something bad happens.

RE: all this money spent
By masher2 on 11/12/2008 2:23:37 PM , Rating: 4
Lady Luck favors those who make reasonable assessments of risks, rather than those too afraid of their own shadow to ever accomplish anything.

Even should a complete failure occur, causing an RTG to release its radiologic package, the end result would simply be a negligible increase in background radiation levels.

We live in a constant bath of radiation anyway. If people realized this, there would be a lot less irrational fear over all things nuclear.

RE: all this money spent
By nolisi on 11/12/2008 3:20:05 PM , Rating: 2
reasonable assessments of risks,

Speaking of reasonable assessments- as a supporter of nuclear technology, I find it hard to believe that the minority of of the public (I've seen recent polls showing 47% in favor of nuclear power, 41% against) was able to sway policy regarding Nasa's use of nuclear technology on Mars. I understand

When you consider the fact that a low recent approval ratings of current congress/executive branch as well as several years of protest by a minority in the US have failed to sway foreign policies and armed conflicts, I would say that the idea that the public has shifted NASA's use of nuclear power is not a "reasonable assessment."

RE: all this money spent
By nolisi on 11/12/2008 3:21:51 PM , Rating: 2
Apologies for the choppy statement- I will endeavor to edit my responses more thoroughly.

RE: all this money spent
By masher2 on 11/12/2008 4:46:45 PM , Rating: 2
A. NASA has already gone on record several times on why they've been reluctant to include nuclear power on missions.
B. The public's opinion of nuclear power has increased dramatically in the past few years.
C. The "squeaky wheel gets the grease" syndrome. A vocal minority can and does influence policy decisions in this country, unfortunately.

RE: all this money spent
By FITCamaro on 11/12/2008 4:26:22 PM , Rating: 2
Too bad she doesn't kill idiots. Like drunk drivers.

RE: all this money spent
By JonnyDough on 11/12/2008 2:44:36 PM , Rating: 2
That might also be why we're not using it now. It's probably cheaper to use an alternative than to send that up with all the shielding and safety features needed.

RE: all this money spent
By Ringold on 11/12/2008 4:51:33 PM , Rating: 2
I think the only shielding necessary was a decent case. On the other hand, the craft gets uninterrupted and decent quantities of power.

NASA did try to use RTG's, but when thousands of protestors started showing up for launches, combined with Carter-era rabid anti-nuclear activism, they just gave up. Masher didn't mention it, but to my understanding even in cases where NASA still does try to use RTG's they have a hell of a time for a reason I don't know trying to get the amount of plutonium they need from the government.

RE: all this money spent
By TSS on 11/12/2008 3:51:21 PM , Rating: 2
instead of scaling a reactor down how about scaling a nuclear battery up.

RE: all this money spent
By Clauzii on 11/13/2008 8:26:15 AM , Rating: 2
That looks promising indeed! Might be very good for pacemakers for which it seems predestined.

RE: all this money spent
By rudolphna on 11/12/2008 8:17:28 PM , Rating: 2
Yes. We have Radio isotope thermoelectric generators. What were used on Voyagers 1, 2, Pioneer 10, and 11 among others. We are still receiving data from Voyagers and will be till about 2020

RE: all this money spent
By 91TTZ on 11/13/2008 2:57:22 PM , Rating: 2
Yes, they make small RTG's.

RE: all this money spent
By abraxas1 on 11/12/2008 1:22:34 PM , Rating: 2
Using a "Dome" would have added cost and weight to the rover. It would have also added another complexity that could fail.

Basically the same case for adding nuclear power.

RE: all this money spent
By fleshconsumed on 11/12/2008 1:26:12 PM , Rating: 3

Solar panel wipers would have been far more effective.

RE: all this money spent
By Seemonkeyscanfly on 11/12/2008 2:45:42 PM , Rating: 2
I was thinking they could program in a dog like feature.... imagine a wet dog shaking off the water. Now just program the rover to do the same thing.... Problem solved. :P

RE: all this money spent
By bhieb on 11/12/2008 1:37:25 PM , Rating: 3
Echoing the below post. I think they did quite well since all that money was spent on a 90-day mission that is pushing 5 years. IMHO these 2 rovers are perhaps the best NASA project ever when it comes to bang for your buck.

So why did some of the smartest engineers in the country not think the "dome", but you magically did? Well probably because it would have been a total waste on a 90-day project.

RE: all this money spent
By tmouse on 11/12/2008 2:04:28 PM , Rating: 2
Actually that’s not necessarily true. Sometimes one is so close to a problem you become myopic, and then someone says something totally naive, at first you say “you don't know what you’re talking about “ then you think about it and think.....Crap why didn't we see that.

RE: all this money spent
By bhieb on 11/12/2008 3:56:39 PM , Rating: 2
No disagreement there, but acting like anything regarding these rovers was a "waste of money" is pretty far fetched. A 90 day life expectancy that lasts 5 years is nothing short of extraordinary, and there is just no need to second guess the engineering now by all intents and purposes it was superb.

RE: all this money spent
By rudolphna on 11/12/2008 9:17:12 PM , Rating: 2
No, again that is Voyager. Launched in 77, we have gotten so much valuable information from them, and they will keep going till 2020

RE: all this money spent
By randomly on 11/12/2008 2:01:16 PM , Rating: 2
They do use nuclear power. Viking I and II were both powered by RTGs (Radioisotope Thermal Generators). Much of the Apollo mission lunar equipment was powered by RTGs, Voyager, Pioneer, Galileo, Cassini, etc.

I believe the decision to use Solar panels on Spirit and Opportunity was driven by cost and weight limitations. They had to stay with the mass limits imposed by the inflatable landing bag system.

The MSL rover uses an RTG instead of solar power, but they had to come up with a whole new landing system ( The sky crane) since it's 5 times heavy than Spirit or Opportunity and beyond the limits of the landing bag system.

RE: all this money spent
By Andy35W on 11/13/2008 2:50:05 AM , Rating: 2
Yes, good points.

Also, to be stated again, for a 90 day mission you simply don't need to worry about dust on panels, it's only because they have managed to make it work for 5 years that it has become a problem.

We need to send the people at my local traffic lights up there to give them a clean for a cigarette or two.



RE: all this money spent
By marvdmartian on 11/13/2008 11:54:02 AM , Rating: 1
This is the real reason why the rovers fail:

Marvin's taking it in for the first ever, "Pimp my Rover" show!! ;)

"There's no chance that the iPhone is going to get any significant market share. No chance." -- Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer
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