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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 @04:54AM (#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.
  • by LeoDV (653216) on Wednesday June 09, 2004 @04:55AM (#9375185) Journal

    The way they put it, the rovers are on the ground and suddenly somebody at NASA went "Oh crap, winter's coming!" and the solution they came up with is to put them on sleep mode, cross their fingers for a long amount of time, and see if the screensaver's still on when spring comes. Couldn't they prepare better for this or did I miss something?

  • Is it just me... (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Viceice (462967) on Wednesday June 09, 2004 @05:01AM (#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.

  • Dusty solar panels (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Mostly a lurker (634878) on Wednesday June 09, 2004 @05:06AM (#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?
  • EOL underestimated (Score:4, Interesting)

    by some1somewhere (642060) on Wednesday June 09, 2004 @05:22AM (#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?
  • by Phoenixhunter (588958) on Wednesday June 09, 2004 @05:26AM (#9375265)
    But found that with all of the weight constraints, it was easier to simply have larger panels than they needed. I heard about it on an interview over on NPR.
  • by Sneeka2 (782894) on Wednesday June 09, 2004 @05:28AM (#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 @05:28AM (#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 @05:31AM (#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
  • here we go again (Score:1, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday June 09, 2004 @05:38AM (#9375306)
    que the pro-RTG anti-solar zealots.

    que me not caring.

    Yes there are safe nuclear designs. Yes they are more "efficient". But if you are going to fund research give it a DUAL purpose, because we could use advances in solar down here too. It's not just blind enviro ranting. Think what improved solar could get us:

    Houses independent of power grids.
    Single person cars totally solar and larger cars topped up (who knows how powerful they could get).

    Also battery technology research benefits from this. Which we sorely need for laptops, electric cars, independent house units, wifi etc. etc.

    I got shit-canned last time I suggested solar was good by the RTG lobby here at slashdot. I was characterised as some enviro-loonie. But there are just too many fringe benefits to advancing solar and battery technology that allow money spend by NASA to double up for applications here on earth. And lets face it, NASA gets a hell of alot of money for poking around on some rocks.

    It is smart environmentally.
    It is smart economically.
    And yes RTGs would have been better if you only measure by ONE metric.
  • Re:Is it just me... (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Lord_Dweomer (648696) on Wednesday June 09, 2004 @05:42AM (#9375316) Homepage
    You sound surprised? In the business world, these tactics are called 'managing expectations' and 'limiting liability'.

  • by thetoastman (747937) on Wednesday June 09, 2004 @05:57AM (#9375369)
    Hmm . . . .

    Best distance to Mars . . . . 0.38 AU

    3.8E-01 * 9.3E07 = 3.534E07 miles
    3.534E07 / 6 ms = 5.89E05 miles / ms
    5.89E05 miles/ms = 5.89E09 miles/sec

    5.89E09 / 1.86E05 = 3.2E04 times speed of light

    Someone phone the Vulcans, we have warp.

    If someone has the distance from Earth to Mars at the end of the Martian winter, plus a more accurate number for the speed of light in a vaccuum, please clean up the number.

    Oh, and if we're talking about networks, we've not included propogation delay nor the speed of light for the (small) distance that the signal is present on copper.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday June 09, 2004 @06:05AM (#9375388)
    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

  • by 0x0d0a (568518) on Wednesday June 09, 2004 @06:25AM (#9375456) Journal
    So, here's the problem.

    NASA does astronomy. To be very blunt and honest, astronomy provides very few concrete short-term benefits.

    Most people think in the very short term when it comes to deciding who should get money -- and when politicians are strapped for cash for a project, NASA is always a likely source of money to divert.

    As a result, it's always an uphill battle for NASA's research to get funded.

    This is why NASA spends so much effort marketing what they have done -- for instance, providing free, beautiful pictures that consist entirely of false-color images that have been tweaked by hand to look attractive...they're more a credit to the artistic nature of the postprocessors than to the people doing the research itself.

    One major problem is mission failures. The response to NASA getting mission failures appears to be a counterintuitive "cut their budget". My guess is that when positive public opinion and awareness of NASA goes up (as with successful missions), NASA's likelihood of getting funding increases markedly.

    So all NASA has to do is make significant public underestimates of their mission potentials. That way, after completing, say, 10% of their expected work, they can announce that the mission "is a success". When the mission finally does end, the media can crow about how it "vastly exceeded anyone's wildest imaginations", and make public lots of hand-retouched images.

    That doesn't mean I disapprove of what they're doing. I like seeing basic research being funded, and I don't think that there's a really good alternative method for NASA to get money.

    It does mean, however, that it's *very* unlikely that this is an off-the-cuff decision by an engineer at NASA. It's a good bet that they have pre-made strategies for dealing with dust, extreme temperature change, power loss, signal loss, failure of particular systems, etc.
  • by deitel99 (533532) on Wednesday June 09, 2004 @06:29AM (#9375467)
    The other thing I was thinking about is: If the rovers are on opposite sides of the planet, then one is in the northern hemisphere and one is in the south.

    As a result only one rover is about to go into the martian winter. For the other, rock on Summer!

    Anyway, I think something is wrong in the article. Any ideas?
  • Good Ole NASA (Score:4, Interesting)

    by dangerz (540904) <<stuff> <at> <tildastudios.net>> on Wednesday June 09, 2004 @06:36AM (#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
  • Re:here we go again (Score:2, Interesting)

    by Fweeky (41046) on Wednesday June 09, 2004 @07:10AM (#9375655) Homepage
    He meant "cue", unless he was planning on putting himself and pro-RTG anti-solar zealots in a line. Actully he seems to want to hit them with a cue, which seems like a fine idea to me ;)

    What I will say is that just having solar panals and batteries on a couple of Mars rovers doesn't mean it's doing anything to advance the technology, beyond perhaps being one more order for the parts. Said parts are probably largely the same as if you'd ordered them for your solar powered house.

    RTG's and related research are worthwhile too; being able to convert heat to useful energy is a technology which could be just as useful as solar power; we are sitting on top of a huge nuclear reactor after all. Maybe one day we'll construct batteries based on similar technology (mmm, RTG powered laptop), or power cities from radiothermal generators using the mantle as it's heat source (something already done, but maybe we can scale it up).

    Still, it's not as if we're likely to be able to run a rover for more than a fraction's of the life of an RTG (unless you make a *really* small one I guess); one argument for solar panels would be that even with perfect power a rover is likely to get stuck somewhere or be damaged by dust within (say) 6 months; a power source which is likely to last about that long makes more sense than a more expensive ickle RTG. that may well outweigh the panels and be useless over a lot of it's lifetime.

    RTG's get a lot of use in other probes anyway; it's not as if we haven't "risked" blowing them up plenty of times. I think provided they're still used in places they obviously make sense (orbital probes which are likely to last decades), we can forgive NASA for choosing panels on something which isn't likely to take advantage of an RTG's primary feature (long life).
  • by Paulrothrock (685079) on Wednesday June 09, 2004 @07:22AM (#9375707) Homepage Journal
    I've flown on Mars in simulation. (X-Plane Rules! [x-plane.com]) It's quite difficult, because inertia is the same, but the low density atmosphere means you have very large turning radii. For going in straight lines, it's not bad. Turning, landing, taking off, or anything else that requires velocity changes made using normal airplane controls (rudder, aileron, etc) is difficult.
  • Tom & Ray (Score:4, Interesting)

    by Genady (27988) <.moc.cam. .ta. .sregor.yrag.> on Wednesday June 09, 2004 @08:13AM (#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 @08:19AM (#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 hughk (248126) on Wednesday June 09, 2004 @10:07AM (#9377226) Journal
    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).
  • Re:Problems? (Score:3, Interesting)

    by obby.net (772345) on Wednesday June 09, 2004 @10:26AM (#9377465)
    I believe the segment in question can be found here [rbn.com]. It's in real audio, hoorah.

    dupe comment, i know. http://slashdot.org/comments.pl?sid=110501&cid=937 7384
  • by MMHere (145618) on Wednesday June 09, 2004 @05:22PM (#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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