Opportunity has been given a new lease on life after the red planet gave the tenacious Mars rover a power-boosting spring clean.
When NASA engineers envisaged the mission of Mars rovers Spirit and Opportunity, they were, in hindsight, fairly pessimistic about their mission duration. From landing in 2004, the twin robots were expected to have a mission duration of only 3 months and one of the key threats to their survival would be dust sticking to the rovers’ solar panels. And the dust sure did stick.
But in true Mars style there were some surprises.
Although dust storms can quickly choke the whole planet, strong winds and helpful dust devils have countered the impact of sun-blocking layers of dust settling on the solar powered robots. Most recently, Opportunity has seen a surge in energy after a “cleaning event” in March, resulting in a power boost of 70 percent when compared with power levels at the start of this year.
And now mission scientists have released a self-portrait photo of the Mars rover. When compared with the dust coverage at its worst, the difference is nothing short of dramatic. Having just survived its sixth Mars winter, after the most recent cleaning event, Opportunity has solar panels that are as dust free as they were before it entered its first Mars winter.
Sister rover Spirit was not able to soldier on for as long as Opportunity, but it wasn’t dust covering its solar panels that killed off the six-wheeled robot. In 2010, NASA called off attempts at contacting the rover after Spirit became stuck in a sand trap at Gusev Crater. Before Spirit was lost, it also experienced numerous cleaning events that extending the mission’s life years beyond its 3 month warranty.
So Opportunity carries on, doing mindblowing science at “Murray Ridge” on the edge of Endeavour Crater, uncovering new insights to Mars’ ancient environment. And it seems that Mars is helping it along with each new gust of wind.