While Earthlings across the Northern Hemisphere are celebrating spring by braving bar patios for happy hours and painfully convincing themselves it’s warm enough for short sleeves, so too is the mars rover Opportunity embracing the changing of seasons. The days are getting longer on Mars, too, you see, and the increased sun exposure along with some helpful wind cleaning of Opportunity‘s solar panels have upped the rover’s power output by 70%. The Martian hills are alive!
In the 10 long years that Opportunity has been our scientific work-horse, it’s collected a fair share of Mars-grime. Unfortunately a lot of this space crud has intermittently coated the solar panels that power the bot and prevented it from drawing as much power from the sunlight as possible. Luckily, in the last two weeks Opportunity has been hit with some pretty strong spring winds which have helped to clear the panels off. These “cleaning events”, as they’re called, along with the fact that the sun is hanging higher in the sky, mean that Opportunity is generating more than 615 watt hours hours of power (1 watt hour is equal to the energy of one watt operating for an hour). This is 70% more power than the rover was generating in January.
This clip from How The Universe Works gives you a pretty good idea of how dusty an ocean-less world like Mars can get.
These cleaning events, which can come in the form of periodic windstorms or wandering Martian dust devils, have probably played a role in the incredible longevity of Opportunity. When it was dropped off in 2004 the rover was only expected to live for around 90 sols (Martian days – which are pretty close in length to ours). The harsh Martian wind is a blessing and a curse. While it can clean dust off of solar panels from time to time, it can also trap rovers in dust-dunes for good, as it did with Opportunity‘s suddenly sessile friend Spirit.
With the pricey receipts for theses tank-like rovers, and with the fact that a single injury can put one out of work for good, NASA is constantly looking at new designs such as flat landers and super ball bots, both of which are far cheaper and less accident prone. Will alien surfaces soon belong to a new class of terrestrial explorers or are there still jobs we’d only trust to rovers like Opportunity? Tell us what you think below.