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Space Science Hardware Technology

Rovers May Survive Martian Winter 266

Posted by timothy
from the those-things-wake-up-hungry dept.
yokem_55 writes "According to this article on Yahoo News, Mars rover engineers are beginning to consider the possibility that the rovers may be able to survive the oncoming Martian winter in a hibernation mode, and then return to activity when spring returns to the red planet. The article ends with a quote from Steve Squires speculating that, 'we're looking at the final demise of these vehicles perhaps as late as the onset of our second winter on Mars.'"
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Rovers May Survive Martian Winter

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  • by it0 (567968) on Wednesday June 09, 2004 @05:54AM (#9375182)
    Why wouldn't this work in the first place, a couple of solar cells and you're good to go?

    I'm probably missing something.
    • I don't think that there's enough solar energy during a Martian winter...
      -Ashton
    • they have lots of solar cells but they don't work as well as they might when covered in a layer of sticky redish sand.
    • by HermesHuang (606596) on Wednesday June 09, 2004 @06:21AM (#9375251)
      1) during winter sun is weaker, would get less power 2) I'm sure some things, like the batteries, are affected by the temperature. In general lower temperatures increase activation energy barriers, so there's a chance the batteries will be weaker as well 4) Temperature gradient between relatively hot parts of operating rover (such as computer equipment, etc) and outside air will stress the rovers; also temperature cycling from turning off at night and turning back on in daytime will take the rover's equipment along a fairly large range of temperatures which is a good way to break delicate equipment. 3) I sure don't want to be chipping at rocks when it's -100C.... But then again the rovers probably don't care about frostbite as much
    • by Anonymous Coward
      I just had a brainwave, and wondered what the strange noise was....

      No Seriously why dont they just use disposable lens covers, like they make for motorcycle visors... when it gets covered with crap, just use a little robotic arm or something to remove it.

      Wonder whether the nice folks at nasa have thought of this

      oh well looks like i will have to trundle down to the local patent office and get this one in before Microsoft or SCO hey :-P

    • One of the main things is dust. The solar cells on the rovers eventually
      get coated with fine dust.
  • Props to NASA (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Kiryat Malachi (177258) on Wednesday June 09, 2004 @05:56AM (#9375187) Journal
    Always nice to see the reminder that NASA can do great fucking engineering when the mission is properly separated from politics.
  • Is it just me... (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Viceice (462967) on Wednesday June 09, 2004 @06:01AM (#9375200)
    Does anyone else get the feeling that the rovers were actually designed to last this long, but the lifespan that was published was a PR version that was extraordinarily short, so that in the event the rovers didn't last this long, they could save having to answer questions?

    Plus if it worked to spec, they could spin it up like this now, saying it lasted way beyond spec?

    Anyway, I'm not complaining, it's good that the rovers are still healthy and are expected to last longer.. it's way overdue.

    • by torpor (458) <jayv.synth@net> on Wednesday June 09, 2004 @06:20AM (#9375246) Homepage Journal
      Does anyone else get the feeling that the rovers were actually designed to last this long, but the lifespan that was published was a PR version that was extraordinarily short, so that in the event the rovers didn't last this long, they could save having to answer questions?


      Yes. Two words: Insurance Policy.

      NASA can't keep paying insurance on the rovers for years and years, so they plan (in the budget) for limited life times. Set your targets low, get as much done as you can within the limits of those targets, and get out.

      But we should never forget that our estimations for how long things last are completely arbitrary ... until after we've had the experience to back up the assumptions made about the longevity of the hardware.

      The lifetime of the rovers is not so much about science as it is about beauracracy and politices, and ultimately 'responsibility'.

      Personally, I don't see why we just kick out the beauracrats entirely, throw all Insurance premium mafia ripoffs to the winds, and build harder rovers.

      Maybe we don't need to keep going to Mars, maybe we just need to 'learn to stay there' technologically longer than our society is currently capable of supporting. (Insurance is a 'society' thing, it isn't technological...)

      • Are they fully comp, or third-party only? If the latter, do NASA know something we don't!?

        .
      • by Smidge204 (605297) on Wednesday June 09, 2004 @08:46AM (#9375846) Journal
        "Sir! We have lost contact with the probes!"

        "Oh no! The mission is in jeopardy! Hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars wasted!"

        "But there is some good news, sir."

        "Really? What?"

        "We saved a bunch of money on the insurance by switching to Geico!"

        =Smidge=
      • You say Two words: Insurance Policy. and NASA can't keep paying insurance on the rovers for years and years

        Do you mean the cost of operating the rovers, or an actual insurance policy?

        Who is insuring it against what? Does Lloyd's of London underwrite a collision plan on the rover with a $10,000,000 deductible or something? It's not like there is any risk of anything which would actually *require* insurance.

        I'm confused by what exactly you mean in this case, and I'm not convinced your talk about the In
      • As much as you'd like to say this, the links you later provide make ABSOLUTELY no reference to NASA taking out insurance. NASA's probably "self insured" as in they handle such a large portion of space launches etc, that it makes no sense to get third party insurance.

        Furthermore, your oh so cunning plan argument falls even FURTHER apart when you take into account that these sorts of policies are for launches, which are the points at which they are most likely to fail. If the launch goes off well then the
    • Besides telling you to put the tin hat on, I'll agree with you. NASA is a government agency and like other agencies has learned to vallue of understating goals and objects just incase something does happen.
      • by dj245 (732906)
        NASA is a government agency and like other agencies has learned to vallue of understating goals and objects just incase something does happen.

        As compared to a capitolistic society where companies always overstate their goals and products just incase their compeditor does the same. Its interesting that we have two sectors: the government, and free enterprise; and they both have similar goals- be profitable, provide for their 'customers', remain in business. And they have evolved to completely opposite ta

        • As compared to a capitolistic society where companies always overstate their goals and products just incase their compeditor does the same.

          I'll attribute the misspellings to the post time, but what happens when a company overstates goals and misses? Isn't that worse than understating goals and achieving more? It's at least more honest. Of course, there's not much profit in honesty.

    • by dj245 (732906) on Wednesday June 09, 2004 @06:35AM (#9375299) Homepage
      Does anyone else get the feeling that the rovers were actually designed to last this long, but the lifespan that was published was a PR version that was extraordinarily short, so that in the event the rovers didn't last this long...

      Reminds me of a Scotty quote, I can't seem to find it online, but it had something to do with him always telling the captain that it would take 10 hours to fix something when it would really take 5, so when Kirk told him to do it in 5 it would make him look brilliant. The rule of halfs I guess. But what if your superior asks for it in 4 hours? I guess you're screwed then.

      • Oh yeah, I remember that one... Kirk: Mister Scott, do you always multiply your repair estimates by a factor of four? Scotty: Aye captain, how else could I keep my reputation, as a miracle worker?
      • by fiftyfly (516990) <mike@edey.org> on Wednesday June 09, 2004 @07:17AM (#9375428) Homepage
        LaForge gets some wise but unwanted advice from Scotty. Scotty: Do ye mind a little advice? Starfleet captains are like children. They want everything right now, and they want it their way. But the secret is to give only what they need, not what they want! LaForge: Yeah, well I told the captain I'd have this analysis done in an hour. Scotty: And how long would it really take? LaForge: An hour! Scotty: Oh, ye didn't tell him how long it would really take, did ye? LaForge: Well, of course I did. Scotty: Oh, laddie, ye've got a lot to learn if ye want people to think of ye as a miracle worker! --Relics
      • Re:Is it just me... (Score:5, Informative)

        by EvilNight (11001) on Wednesday June 09, 2004 @08:43AM (#9375822)
        I believe this is the quote you are looking for.

        KIRK: Your timing is excellent, Mr.Scott. You've fixed the barn door after the horse has come home. How much refit time till we can take her out again?

        SCOTTY: Eight weeks, sir.(as Kirk opens his mouth) But you don't have eight weeks so I'll do it for ya in two.

        KIRK: (considers) Mr. Scott. Have you always multiplied your repair estimates by a factor of four?

        SCOTTY: Certainly, sir. How else can I keep my reputation as a miracle worker?

        KIRK: Your reputation is secure, Scotty.

        Hey, I've used this as a rule of thumb for computer work time estimates, and while a factor of four is usually excessive (unless dealing with a real asshole), two is always a good idea, and three is good if you're a bit unsure of the situation. If you've worked in computers you know how unpredictable a troubleshooting situation can be. I can only imagine how much more complex it is in the engineering world.
    • I've always thought it was kind of strange that Nasa predicted such a short life span for the rovers. I mean, if they have made it through the landing without problem, why should they just break down a couple of weeks later? These things are probably built by top quality components, and should be able to run for a year or so in my opinion, but then, IANAMRE (I am not a mars rover expert).
    • Re:Is it just me... (Score:3, Interesting)

      by Lord_Dweomer (648696)
      You sound surprised? In the business world, these tactics are called 'managing expectations' and 'limiting liability'.

    • Yes. Yes. Yes... Bureaucratic cowards! There are so many projects that have been snuffed because NASA feared negative PR in the event of failure. NASA is the Cathedral! However, the general population does view space travel as a bit of a frivolous thing and so its easy to sympathize with their plight. Here is one project that NASA killed that actually offered the possibility of interplanetary travel. Project Orion [angelfire.com] (projectorion.com doesn't seem to be around anymore.)
    • LaForge gets some wise but unwanted advice from Scotty.
      Scotty: Do ye mind a little advice? Starfleet captains are like children. They want everything right now, and they want it their way. But the secret is to give only what they need, not what they want!
      LaForge: Yeah, well I told the captain I'd have this analysis done in an hour.
      Scotty: And how long would it really take?
      LaForge: An hour!
      Scotty: Oh, ye didn't tell him how long it would really take, did ye?
      LaForge: Well, of course I did.
      Scotty: Oh, laddie,
  • Dusty solar panels (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Mostly a lurker (634878) on Wednesday June 09, 2004 @06:06AM (#9375204)
    Just a question I am curious about: given that the problem of dust buildup degrading the operation of the solar panels was anticipated, was there no way of incorporating some cleaning mechanism?
    • by JabberWokky (19442) <slashdot.com@timewarp.org> on Wednesday June 09, 2004 @06:13AM (#9375226) Homepage Journal
      Why? The rest of the components were designed to last for a shorter time. The mission was designed to do many things in a fairly short period of time. Thus the entire system was designed to do that. It's like asking why a missile targeting system doesn't have a log cycle routine; by the time the log needs to rollover, the hardware is in tiny pieces.

      A dust cleaner would be another thing that could fail... as would anything else to extend the mission time frame. Instead of a more complex system that could run a year, they made a simple system to last a couple months. Simple seems to be a really good thing when you can't go over and kick it if it gets stuck.

      --
      Evan

  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday June 09, 2004 @06:07AM (#9375208)
    It is utterly inhumane to send them to Mars without building a hut for it to hibernate through the winter.

    Dude! it is a robot!
  • Parking Up (Score:3, Funny)

    by squoozer (730327) on Wednesday June 09, 2004 @06:10AM (#9375215)
    Lets just hope they park them somewhere out of the worst of the weather. Oh, and that they remembered to pack the jump leads.
  • by vchoy (134429) on Wednesday June 09, 2004 @06:17AM (#9375236)
    As a system admin/engineer/operater etc etc, the wait for something to come up again, and seeing something like the following is a nice and satisfying feeling:

    Rover>ping -t mars_rover

    Pinging mars_rover with 32 bytes of data:

    Request timed out.
    Request timed out.
    Request timed out.
    Request timed out.
    Request timed out.
    Request timed out. .......
    Reply from 192.168.1.2: bytes=32 time=2ms TTL=64
    Reply from 192.168.1.2: bytes=32 time=1ms TTL=64
    Reply from 192.168.1.2: bytes=32 time=6ms TTL=64
    Reply from 192.168.1.2: bytes=32 time=6ms TTL=64

    Ping statistics for 192.168.1.2:
    Packets: Sent = 9, Received = 4, Lost = 5 (55% loss),
    Approximate round trip times in milli-seconds:
    Minimum = 1ms, Maximum = 6ms, Average = 3ms
  • EOL underestimated (Score:4, Interesting)

    by some1somewhere (642060) on Wednesday June 09, 2004 @06:22AM (#9375254)
    It seems that with many recent NASA missions they greatly underestimate the capabilities and timelines , then act like something is a great big bonus if it actually outlasts or outperforms the underestimated goal.

    Sure... this is one way to make sure people are not disappointed, because if you always tell people the lowest goal then they'll only be overjoyed if it does any better... but is this the new way forwards?
  • I always wanted to play with a teleguided car too, when I was little.

    Damn *%$!%& Santa never brought one.....sob...
  • by Sneeka2 (782894) on Wednesday June 09, 2004 @06:28AM (#9375268)
    Even though I RTFA, I still don't know when spring will come on Mars. If I remember correctly the Martian year is about twice as long as Earth's year (or was it?). But what about the seasons?
  • by bananahammock (595781) on Wednesday June 09, 2004 @06:28AM (#9375269)
    A-ha. I thought they were concerned that the winter temperature may be too harsh for the rovers (wouldn't space be colder than the surface of mars? Notwithstanding direct sunlight). However the article mentions: "Right now, we're seeing a pretty sharp drop off in solar power on both vehicles. That's a consequence of both the onset of winter and declining solar power because of the dust build-up" So wiat until spring when hopefully everything will fire up with more solar power.
  • by AC-x (735297) on Wednesday June 09, 2004 @06:31AM (#9375280)
    Maybe they were made by Toyota [bbc.co.uk]?

    On a more serious note I remember reading that after a certain amount of time in this extended mission they would have shut the rovers down because they didn't have the money to keep the control room going, but I guess as they're talking about keeping them going longer still I'd hope they've been able to find a bit more cash
  • by Timesprout (579035) on Wednesday June 09, 2004 @06:35AM (#9375300)
    should have wings so they can fly south in the winter and then back again in spring.
  • by kiwirob (588600) on Wednesday June 09, 2004 @06:40AM (#9375314) Homepage
    Hey tell Nasa that to survice the winters on mars they only have to get some guy to go into the mountain where the alien machine is placed. But your hand on some funny looking device with a hand holder thing. once your hand goes in the hand holder thing the machine will melt all the stored ice and create an atmosphere.

    Duh!!

    You would think they would have seen "Total Recall" already, what have they been doing?
  • by OwlWhacker (758974) on Wednesday June 09, 2004 @06:43AM (#9375321) Homepage Journal
    I wonder if the Martians will think they're some kind of strange tortoise, and put them away in a cardboard box?
  • by Stalke (20083) on Wednesday June 09, 2004 @07:06AM (#9375393)
    When I read this, the first thing to pop into my mind was the theme song from Gilligan's Island: "A three hour tour..."
  • Good Ole NASA (Score:4, Interesting)

    by dangerz (540904) <stuff.tildastudios@net> on Wednesday June 09, 2004 @07:36AM (#9375493) Homepage
    You gotta give these people credit.

    Not only did they build a robot that flew millions of miles through space, survived a crazy landing, and has held up in alien terrain, but now they're extending the life of the robot long past what it's meant.

    Those original engineers must be thrilled to see the robots lasting this long.

    Props to NASA
    • In some areas this is the norm at NASA, think about voyager. If they could just bring everything else to this level of function. Software problem? Fix it and keep on, no big deal. The hardware for most explorations has always been top notch. Just need to elevate the manned program to this level.
  • Tom & Ray (Score:4, Interesting)

    by Genady (27988) <gary.rogers@POLLOCKmac.com minus painter> on Wednesday June 09, 2004 @09:13AM (#9376046)
    Am I the only geek here that heard the Guys from the JPL call into Car Talk to ask how to winterize the rovers? That was classic! Talk about Stump the Chumps. I think it's the first time I've ever really heard Ray flustered.
  • by jmichaelg (148257) on Wednesday June 09, 2004 @09:19AM (#9376112) Journal
    Somehow, spending close to a billion dollars to put two crippled vehicles on Mars doesn't strike me as a good investment. From the get go, the rovers have been starved for power. Every morning, there's a power meeting to determine who gets how many of the few watts available to do science. "Do we creep a few inches or do we grind some rock? How many watts are we going to allocate to the heaters?" Early on, someone on the Rover team decided to go with solar panels and the result has been a craft that was far less than it could have been.

    The original Viking missions went 7 years before petering out. The Voyagers which were launched in the early 70's finally died 30 years after they were launched. But now, JPL is happy if they get a few extra months over their initial 3 month plan. A billion bucks for 3 months of science...only Dr. Pangloss could be happy with that.

    I wouldn't be so harsh if JPL didn't have any power options but the fact is they did. They could have sent a nuclear power source up there just as they did early on. But they lost their balls and figured it was politically safer to go with a crappy solar solution rather with a long term nuclear solution. Had they gone nuclear, they could have had enough power to move AND do science. With years of power, they could have covered a significant chunk of the Martian surface. Instead of creeping inch by inch, the Rovers could have moved foot by foot or gasp - yard by yard! Perhaps they could have even found the remains of Beagle and figured out what went wrong with it. As it is, they crow when they move 100 feet in a day.

    • by Suidae (162977)
      They could have sent a nuclear power source up there just as they did early on. But they lost their balls and figured it was politically safer to go with a crappy solar solution rather with a long term nuclear solution

      I'd be surprised if they would have picked up much flack on launching a couple of small RTG's on those. They would have been so small that they wouldn't have been a problem even if they did crash on launch.

      More pratically, I'm guessing the weight limitations were more of a concern. RTG's
      • by hughk (248126)
        Actually they used a number of small Radio-Thermal generators to keep the thing warm. They don't generate any power, just keeps the thing from from freezing up too much overnight (especially the batteries because their ability to hold charge goes down rapidly when cold).
    • The original Viking missions went 7 years before petering out. The Voyagers which were launched in the early 70's finally died 30 years after they were launched. But now, JPL is happy if they get a few extra months over their initial 3 month plan. A billion bucks for 3 months of science...only Dr. Pangloss could be happy with that.

      In all fairness, I don't know much about the viking and voyager missions. I would assume however that they require much less power than rovers do. You put a space craft on a c
    • by barawn (25691)
      But now, JPL is happy if they get a few extra months over their initial 3 month plan.

      Do you even really know why all NASA missions are so short, and then they always have an "extended mission"? Do you really think it's because NASA's aspirations are so low?

      The reason is simple. The cost of the hardware itself is cheap. The cost of the people analyzing data is far more expensive. NASA's missions are so short because when the mission planners present the budget for grant review, in order to keep the cost s
    • I'm thinking isotope decay power sources would be a bit better. They power satellites, why couldn't they power a rover?

      damn politics getting in the way of science.
  • by peter303 (12292) on Wednesday June 09, 2004 @09:51AM (#9376433)
    In a related development, NASA announced the discovery of magnesium sulfate [nytimes.com] at the Spirit site. This compound is marketed to consumers under the name "epsom salts".
  • I've been watching space probe operations since the 1960s. They always say, "Mission X will last a maximum of six weeks" and then five years later we are still getting useful data from the thing. Their estimation skills are almost as poor as mine. :-/
  • by bigattichouse (527527) on Wednesday June 09, 2004 @10:34AM (#9376866) Homepage
    Thats great that the rovers have lasted as long as they have. Imagine the resume lines on that one "Designed solar panel array system that powered Mars rovers 500% of their life expectancy". Heck think of all those parts inside that have stood up to tempeture cycling. They really did a good job.
  • by MMHere (145618) on Wednesday June 09, 2004 @06:22PM (#9382291)
    Someone above mentioned budgetary issues for keeping the control rooms going even if the rovers still are.

    So I've noticed fewer updates on mission status recently. Example: It's 9 June, but the last Opportunity update was on 25 May. Have they entered the crater yet?

    Are they de-staffing a little, and could this be responsible for fewer updates?

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