While Elon Musk and SpaceX are moving forward with plans to build their first base on Mars in the next 10 years, NASA is is still stuck exploring the red planet with roving robots.
Well, I guess we should really say “robot.”
NASA’s pair of rovers, Curiosity and Opportunity, were subjected to a massive dust storm that encircled the entire planet of Mars back in June. The storm was so large that we could actually see it on Earth through any ordinary telescope or binoculars.
The atmosphere of Mars is incredibly thin, about 100 times thinner than sea level on Earth, so even 200 mile per hour winds on Mars would feel like a light breeze.
While the rovers were safe from the wind during the storm, the dust blocking out sunlight presented a big problem for Opportunity. Opportunity was put into an ultra low power mode, however there was concern that its batteries – which have been on the Martian surface for fourteen and a half years – might not have enough charge to weather the storm. There was also the chance that the blocked sunlight would be too cold for the batteries – temperatures at the poles can get as low as -195 Fahrenheit (-125 Celsius).
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NASA’s worst fears for Opportunity have been realized, as pings sent to the rover have gone unrequited. Engineers have been listening for any sign of life from Opportunity since June with no luck. While it appears that we’ve lost our Opportunity (sorry, not sorry for the bad pun), we should take solace in the fact that its original mission duration was only for 90 days. We got a lotta bang for our buck out of it since it landed on Mars in January of 2004.
Blocked sunlight wasn’t a concern for Curiosity though, as it generates its own power from the heat of decaying Plutonium-238 it has on board. And once the dust settled on Mars (well, most of it anyway), Curiosity successfully established contact with NASA and the little interplanetary-science-tank-that-could kept puttering on to drill more holes and crush Martian rocks.
That is, until Saturday.
On Saturday, Curiosity experienced a technical anomaly that resulted in NASA turning off all of its science instruments.
“Over the past few days, engineers here at JPL have been working to address an issue on Curiosity that is preventing it from sending much of the science and engineering data stored in its memory,” said Curiosity’s Project Scientist Ashwin Vasavada. “The rover remains in its normal mode and is otherwise healthy and responsive.”
In his blog post, Vasavada explained that NASA engineers are troubleshooting the issue by turning off the science instruments, as the data was not being stored. Engineers are tinkering with how much information Curiosity transmits about itself to try to pin down the underlying issue to help fix it.
Another possibility is for the rover to use its backup computer, which used to be the primary computer, to help diagnose the issue with the primary computer. The now-backup computer was the rover’s primary until 200 Sols (Martian days) into the mission when the rover was forced to switch. The issue affecting the then-primary computer has been resolved now, but Curiosity continued to use the backup computer as its primary since that time.
Here’s hoping that NASA is able to figure it out and Curiosity can keep science-ing around on the surface of Mars. We’ve already had amazing discoveries, including possible evidence of ancient Martian life earlier this year, and there’s undoubtedly more to come for Curiosity.
But even if we lose Curiosity, it’s far surpassed its original mission duration of two years since it landed in 2012. And in just over two months from now, a lander (not a rover) called Mars InSight will land and begin exploring the interior of Mars to detect Marsquakes, teaching us more about what the planet is made of.