July 5, 2007

Mars Exploration Rover Mission in Possible Danger

A huge dust storm on Mars, covering the southern hemisphere of Mars almost completely, has put the future of the Mars Exploration Rovers Mission in danger. A smaller dust storm has also appeared elsewhere on Mars, adding further danger.

The largest dust storm has blocked the sun's light by almost 99 percent, threatening the solar powered Mars rovers. These rovers' power comes from their solar panels, which collect energy from the sun. If the sun is blocked off, the Martian rovers will not be able to get their energy, they will not be able to stay on and will be lost forever.

The dust storms on Mars are both immense, the larger one rising to cover from 230,000 square miles (600,000 square kilometers) to almost 7 million square miles (18 million square kilometers) in just two weeks. The smaller storm has risen, in just a few days, to cover 3 million square miles (7.7 million square kilometers). On Earth, their total combined area would be enough to darken the United States, Canada, and Greenland combined.

The large storms are actually numerous little storms combined. They kick up a lot of dust into the atmosphere, obscuring the surface of Mars. The atmosphere warms up, and continues a cycle of the whole process. However, this storm can be considered normal, because global dust storms on Mars take place about every three Martian years (or about six Earth years). The last one took place about two Martian years ago, so this one is happening almost on the right time.

Previous Martian dust devils have actually helped the Mars rovers, lifting off the dust settling on the rovers' solar panels and increasing the amount of energy they produced. As the current storms were developing they did the exact same thing to one of the rovers, Opportunity, as it was preparing to head down into Victoria Crater. But, the same storms are gaining power, and are blocking the sun lowering the Martian rover's energy to a dangerous level, just enough to power a 60-watt light bulb for five hours. A dead battery will not allow the robot explorer to keep its electronic components warm enough in the harsh cold on Mars.

The dust storms on Mars are growing very rapidly, and becoming a big threat to the continuation of the mission of the Mars Exploration Rovers. These storms may result in the loss of the very valuable rovers, which have given us an immense amount of knowledge about the red planet.

Below: A picture taken of Victoria Crater, taken by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter with the HiRISE (click here for more information about HiRISE) camera on board. Opportunity, and its tracks, can be seen on the edge of the crater at roughly the ten o'clock position. Click on the image to open a larger version. The rover will appear as a dot at the end of its tracks, which appear like fine lines. If you look closer, you can see the shadow of the mast of the rover.

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