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Mars Space

Spirit Rover Begins Making Night Sky Observations 157

Posted by CmdrTaco
from the rover-that-keeps-on-giving dept.
Nancy Atkinson writes "Even though the Spirit rover is stuck in loose soil on Mars, she has an overabundance of electrical power due to a wind event that cleaned off her solar panels. While MER scientists and engineers are having the rover take pictures of her surroundings in an effort to figure a way to get her dislodged, there also is enough power (since the rover isn't moving anywhere) to do something extra: keep the rover 'awake' at night and run her heaters so she can take images of the night sky on Mars. 'Certainly, a month or more ago, no one was considering astronomy with the rovers,' said Mark Lemmon, planetary scientist at Texas A&M University and member of the rover team. 'We thought that was done. With the dust cleanings, though, everyone thinks it is better to use the new found energy on night time science than to just burn it with heaters.'"
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Spirit Rover Begins Making Night Sky Observations

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  • Girl rover (Score:3, Funny)

    by oneirophrenos (1500619) on Monday June 29, 2009 @08:50AM (#28513393)
    Who decided she was female?
  • Wind Event? (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Noodlenose (537591) on Monday June 29, 2009 @08:54AM (#28513425) Homepage Journal
    Is that what we mere mortals call a 'storm'?
  • Observe what? (Score:5, Interesting)

    by ATestR (1060586) on Monday June 29, 2009 @08:58AM (#28513467) Homepage

    At first glance, one might think that observation of the Martian night sky would return insignificant scientific data. After all, how powerful of a telescope does Spirit mount? Certainly not even in Hubble's league. But they aren't looking to collect data about distant galaxies & stars.

    The real value is information about the Martian atmosphere. By observing the "twinkle" of distant stars, the observations should return some useful information regarding night time atmospheric conditions. Maybe not as much as a dedicated purpose designed atmospheric station, but certainly more than we have now.

    • Re:Observe what? (Score:5, Insightful)

      by Stenchwarrior (1335051) on Monday June 29, 2009 @09:26AM (#28513777)
      From TFA:

      described Spirit's astronomy as "stone-knives and bear-skins backyard astronomyâ"but from Mars!"

      They may not get much useful information but you have to admit, doing Astronomy from a coffee-table sized robot while it sits stuck in sand on another planet 36 Million miles away IS pretty cool.

      • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

        by BrightSpark (1578977)
        Spot on. Tuly remarkable. Just as impressive is tracking Pioneer 10; a 2.7m wide hunk of shiny metal over 100 AU from the sun. I want to be at the finish line at Aldebaran in 2 million years. At least the champers will be cold :-) Of course, Voyager 1 is now all the go, because it is moving much faster than Pioneer 10, it is now the futherest man-made object at 108 AU. See here; http://www.absoluteastronomy.com/topics/Voyager_1 [absoluteastronomy.com] I wonder if people will remember Pioneer 10?
  • the human mind has many types of intelligence: spatial, social, emotional, etc.

    one of our most powerful is, in fact, our social intelligence. a rodent needs a good sense of smell to escape predators and find food. living in a social group, the biggest threat and reward for you comes not from the bushes: berries or fangs, but from your fellow humans: jealous potential murderer or coy potential mate

    therefore, you have this powerful cognition machine sitting in your head hewn from millenia of evolution in human groups. well, use it. there is nothing wrong with bringing your powerful social intelligence machinery to bear on nonsocial problems. think of it as using otherwise wasted cpu cycles on protein folding or finding mersenne primes: you "use" your social intelligence by imagining a math problem as a social setting (cue that famous scene from the russel crowe flick "a beautiful mind"), or reimagining your relationship as captain of a cruise ship and all its engineering problems as instead a relationship with a woman and all of the attendant problems that comes with that

    it is in fact, not some sort of weird mental trick i am referring to, it is in fact almost a subconcious and completely natural effort for most of us, this repurposing of social intelligence, since our social intelligence is probably our most potent form of intelligence. you look at clouds and bark on trees and stars in the sky and see faces and bodies, its effortless. this is because your mind is powerfully prejudiced and primed to process its world in terms of social cues and meanings first. yes, spatial intelligence is important for many things, like throwing a spear or building a hut. but none of that matters if you didn't see the backstabber in your hunting party or missed the social cues that the big man's daughter was interested in you. social intelligence is our most important form of intelligence: i am sure plenty of people can outrank barack obama on a traditional iq test. but iq tests test only certain forms of intelligence. barack obama's ability to recognize, manipulate, and use social networks to gain power (or any politician's such ability, its called charisma) is in fact a much more important form of iq than anything a traditional iq test reveals

    there is nothing wrong with anthropomorphism. it is entirely natural, and in fact, useful. in fact, if you see something wrong with anthropomorphism, all you are doing is denying a powerful aspect of your own intellect to come to bear on problems of interest to you. or perhaps you are in fact impoverished in your social intelligence abilities, and your anathema to anthropomorphism is just a symptom of your own poverty, not a valid comment on other people's lines of thinking

    so when the engineers and technicians talk about and react to events with the mars rovers in terms of a social relationship with another person, specifically, a woman ("she"), all they are doing is putting themselves in a frame of mind to maximize their intellectual abilities to process the issues that come up

    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      by Anonymous Coward

      Or perhaps they are just using the centuries-old nautical convention for giving craft of various kinds the female gender, which likely reached NASA from the navy.

      Don't overthink it. Boats have been 'she' for many centuries. It's only meant to engender respect and care.

    • Unfortunately, while social intelligence is powerful(since we've been burning brainpower on social problems longer than we've been human), it is also an excellent way to bring nearly invisible and highly emotionally misleading contrafactual assumptions into your thinking.

      Using social intelligence on a problem means implicitly assuming that the object(s) you are interacting with possess social qualities. Even if you tell yourself you aren't going to do that, actually not doing so means swimming against th
      • by PhilHibbs (4537)

        Unfortunately, while social intelligence is powerful(since we've been burning brainpower on social problems longer than we've been human), it is also an excellent way to bring nearly invisible and highly emotionally misleading contrafactual assumptions into your thinking.

        Ah, but part of the problem space of NASA engineers is one of communication and public relations, and so if anthropomorphizing (dammit that's hard to type) the machine helps both in terms of team motivation and PR, then why not?

        (Plus, robots hate being anthropomorphized)

        Only the straight ones. Gay robots enjoy it.

        • Oh, for advertising/PR purposes, anthropomorphizing is an extremely powerful tool, precisely because it induces contractual assumptions and cognitive errors in your audience. In effect, anthropomorphizing is good PR for exactly the same reasons it is bad engineering.
    • Jeez, the way you write about the human race, it seems like our odds of survival would be much higher if we could evolve tribesman who wouldn't kill us rather than the large brain to figure out WHO would inevitably *want* to kill us.

      Wait, you're in New York. Our experiences may be different ;)

      -b

  • by deemen (1316945) on Monday June 29, 2009 @09:06AM (#28513541)
    That this rover landed in 2004 with a planned mission of 90 Martian days and we're now in 2009 still amazes me. To keep these rovers functioning for that long is an engineering triumph. Even with equipment failures, dust storms, broken wheels etc. the engineers at NASA manage to make the best of these rovers and learn more about Mars. If we're lucky, the rovers will still be working when we land there, one day. It's nice to see such human ingenuity.
    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      I wonder how long are the martians going to keep feeding us this data. They should be tired of this joke by now.
      • I wonder how long are the martians going to keep feeding us this data. They should be tired of this joke by now.

        It's going to be really embarrassing when we get manned missions up there and find all those canals.

        Kreel is going to be so busted.

    • by Richard_at_work (517087) <.moc.liamg. .ta. .ecirpdrahcir.> on Monday June 29, 2009 @09:40AM (#28513945)
      The problem is, people will expect this again and again, for the same or less money - when the next 90 day rover is planned, whats its budget going to be set at? The $500m that Spirit and Opportunity cost, or a fraction of that considering how 'overbuilt for the job' these two turned out to be?

      The overperforming of this mission could turn out to be a wolf in sheeps clothing. Be wary.
      • And most of that overperforming is due to sheer dumb luck that the Mars winds (a) found the rovers and (b) are strong enough to blow dust off of the panels.

        • by msbmsb (871828)
          Exactly, it's really a combination of engineering and fortune. If not for the fortunate wind storms these rovers would have frozen long ago, and if not for the good engineering, even with clean solar panels, the rovers would have broken/quit before now.
      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by Matje (183300)

        How is this a bad thing? If you can spend less to achieve your objective, why wouldn't you?

        • by Vellmont (569020)


          How is this a bad thing?

          It could very well be a totally unrealistic expectation. Less money could mean simply NO results rather than a lower lifetime. Shit, these missions were ALREADY supposed to be inexpensive ones. Remember, failure IS an option, and does happen especially with mars missions a large amount of the time.

        • by adavies42 (746183)
          clearly you've never worked in government
          • by Matje (183300)

            I have actually, and your comment does not hold true for government in general, luckily.

            What you and the OP seem to have lost somewhere along the way is the realization that you are spending taxpayers money and you have a moral obligation to do so sparingly.

    • by Chris Burke (6130) on Monday June 29, 2009 @10:44AM (#28514795) Homepage

      I'm wagering that designing a rover that you are certain is capable of running around Mars for 90 days would necessarily entail a degree of engineering that makes it at least theoretically capable of running around Mars for years. Everything that broke and they worked their way out of in the last few years could have happened on day 10. Thus redundancy, back-doors, and clever, robust engineering were the words, even for a short mission.

      The 90 day expected life was due to the expectation that the solar panels would get covered in dust, and that the Martian wind would be too slight to blow them off (and various panel cleaning devices were considered and rejected for reasoning as solid as the rest of the rover design). When that assumption was proven false, and the panels were kept clean enough to continue powering the rover, well, then the rover's "expected" life span goes way, way up.

      It's not like they said "Oh the mission will only be 90 days, we can design this axle so that it would snap on day 91" or "Hey, the controller code will fail with an out of memory exception on day 100, but we won't fix it or put in a back door to get new code in the rover because who cares if it dies on day 100?"

      So, yeah, yay for human ingenuity for sure, but that ingenuity was in there from the start and comparing the result to the 90 day expected life is a little misleading.

      • by BTWR (540147)
        I'm wagering that designing a rover that you are certain is capable of running around Mars for 90 days would necessarily entail a degree of engineering that makes it at least theoretically capable of running around Mars for years.

        I mean this in the politest way, but you're wrong. Read Steve Squyres's Roving Mars [amazon.com]. He was the head of the entire project. It's amazing how many things almost didn't work (for example, they got one chance to test their chute - and it shredded to pieces. And it was like 30 da
        • by Chris Burke (6130)

          I mean this in the politest way, but you're wrong. Read Steve Squyres's Roving Mars. He was the head of the entire project. It's amazing how many things almost didn't work (for example, they got one chance to test their chute - and it shredded to pieces. And it was like 30 days before launch). It's an amazing book.

          Just to be clear, since I don't have the book handy, what aspect is wrong? Were there other parts of the rover that were actually designed or spec'ed to last 90 days? I mean I'm not saying every

          • by BTWR (540147)
            Basically, anything and everything went wrong with the rovers. Everything from the funding to all the equipment breakdowns (both before and after launch). It's absolutely amazing that they got them off the ground.

            And it really was designed for 90 days. Dr. Squyres talks about how "90 days" to the NASA engineers usually means up to 180 days (x2). Like Sojourner, Mars Polar Lander, it was NOT meant to last through the first winter. I remember Dr. Squyres telling us in class that they purposely didn't de
  • by bignetbuy (1105123) <r0ck&operamail,com> on Monday June 29, 2009 @09:12AM (#28513583) Journal
    Such an amazing project, those little rovers are. With an planned life span of 90 days, they have now been running since...oh...2003? Wonderful work, NASA. Please keep the pictures and the science flowing. Can you imagine how long that data takes to get from Earth to Mars?

    Or what about the communication path from the rovers to NASA? They use the Mars Odyssey or Mars Global Surveyor. Check this out. The rovers have a 250kbps link to those satellites. Unreal. Even with the satellite use, the data still takes TEN minutes to get to Earth.

    This stuff is awesome. Just awesome.
  • Phobos & Deimos (Score:5, Interesting)

    by sznupi (719324) on Monday June 29, 2009 @09:15AM (#28513621) Homepage

    Please, please, please...make a photo of those two moons on night/twilight sky, with barely visible ground/horizon

    Ultimate romantic picture for all geeks throughout the world ;>

    • Re:Phobos & Deimos (Score:5, Informative)

      by Anonymous Coward on Monday June 29, 2009 @09:26AM (#28513769)
      I don't think it's going to look like you think it's going to look.

      Here a series of pictures [wikipedia.org] taken by Spirit in 2005.
      • by sznupi (719324)

        Well, of course; it depends on capacity of image sensors (I suspect this one's fine, especially at twilight/when making composite picture) and being able to do tricks with perspective (essentially: powerful zoom; and tbh I have some doubts with this requirement)

    • Re:Phobos & Deimos (Score:5, Interesting)

      by brock bitumen (703998) on Monday June 29, 2009 @09:41AM (#28513963)
      that *would* be cool. don't think the Martian sky has a sight like that tho

      Put this in perspective, our moon [wikipedia.org], which is a fairly large night-sky (or daytime) feature, is about 1800km mean radius, (which is about a quarter the size of Earth, mind you, and we posses the largest natural satellite, relative to the planet, in the solar system), and, by the way it's about 385,000 km from earth on average, which is not very close, but it still appears quite large.

      However, Phobos [wikipedia.org], and Deimos [wikipedia.org], the two small moons possessed by Mars, are a paltry 11km and 6km in mean radius, respectively. The smaller moon, Deimos, is also farther away, and would appear no more than a small dot in the sky (day or night as it would happen to be). Phobos, by virtue of it's very close orbital distance, would have a shot at actually being recognized by a lay-Martian to be something special in the sky, but it would still appear quite small when compared to the grandeur of Luna.

      The photos from these pages depicting a solar transit ("eclipse") from the the surface of Mars, help provide a good metric for comprehending these relative sizes. Notice that neither moon is large enough to actually create an eclipse. Of course, on the surface of Mars, the Sun is slightly smaller than on the surface of Earth, but not by very much. Phobos' transit [wikipedia.org], Deimos' transit [wikipedia.org]

      Finally, both of these on first glance appear to be nothing more than lumps of rock drifting through space, hardly anything to cherish on a romantic skyline like we do the way our perfectly curved Luna hangs. But maybe I'm just being ethnocentric....

      • by sznupi (719324)

        What you write is not a problem at all in principle - simply do a trick with perspective by using powerful zoom (the landscape will look largery the same, but the image of moons will be significantly enlarged - actually, that's also how you make "stunning" images of Luna)

        Of course it depends on the presence of adequate optics on the rovers; I don't know if they posses it.

      • by Kjella (173770)

        Phobos, by virtue of it's very close orbital distance, would have a shot at actually being recognized by a lay-Martian to be something special in the sky, but it would still appear quite small when compared to the grandeur of Luna.

        Since you appear to have inside information, what do the scientific Martians think?

    • The moons are tiny, and not round. They do not form symetrical cresents like ours does, and they show absolutely no surface detail other than their unusual shape from the Martian surface. Oh, and they are tiny.

    • by rhombic (140326)

      As an old geezer, Phobos & Deimos hold less than [doomworld.com] romantic [doomworld.com]memories.

      Ah, memories. Skulls & Chainsaws & BFGs. But maybe that was your point.

  • by InfinityWpi (175421) on Monday June 29, 2009 @09:19AM (#28513663)

    Seriously, who here wouldn't donate a few bucks to NASA in exchange for a "Night sky as seen from Mars Rover" desktop image?

    • by bignetbuy (1105123) <r0ck&operamail,com> on Monday June 29, 2009 @09:24AM (#28513749) Journal
      *raises hand*
      Between the Martian pics, Hubble, and APOD (Astronomy Picture of the Day), we have enough pictures to last a lifetime...or at least until Microsoft starts charges us to change wallpaper. Hohoho.
    • The night sky is difficult from a photography point of view; stars are terribly faint objects and are hard to image, especially since if you take a long exposure you get streaks instead of points. The Martian moons are tiny and unimpressive compared to Earth's moon, which is larger than most dwarf planets.

      However, this Martian sunset [nasa.gov] makes a very nice wallpaper.

    • I've already got the "Sunrise as seen from the Mars Rover" desktop image. All you need to do is roam through the public archives of the images, then when you find one you like download it at full resolution and convert it to a jpg. For what it's worth, you've already paid for them (taxes).
  • by petes_PoV (912422) on Monday June 29, 2009 @09:22AM (#28513721)
    The pix of stars aren't very good.

    As the article says, they trail after a few seconds, since they can't track. So they can't take deeper images of fainter objects. Without the ability to track, they might as well point the camera straight up (or whereever) and check for meteors. Apart from getting information about how many strike the martian atmosphere, they could correlate counts with meteor showers on earth, to see how the same showers impact (or not) two planets at the same time - a unique opportunity.

    Also, a lot of metoers on earth at least, are fairly bright. So they might get quite a good hit-rate with their cam. Although I don't know what effect the thinner atmosphere would have. It would be interesting to see if the thinner atmosphere made meteors burn brighter (as they'd be slowed down by "air", less) or less bright, due to the lack of gases.

  • picture of Earth (Score:4, Interesting)

    by Ogive17 (691899) on Monday June 29, 2009 @09:41AM (#28513953)
    I think it would be interesting seeing a picture of Earth taken from Mars.. even if it was only a faint dot of light in the sky. I imagine the cameras could do this even if it isn't a great picture.
  • by Rival (14861) on Monday June 29, 2009 @09:45AM (#28514013) Homepage Journal

    Did anyone else read this title as, "Sprint Rollover Begins Making Night Sky Observations"?

    I was thinking, "Now what? The phone companies won't let us use our rollover minutes after dusk? Sheesh."

  • Until they get the other rover over to hook up the winch and drag the poor thing out of the muck.

    Seriously, I don't doubt this is possible, and they are only waiting for the other team to give in and 'waste' the time driving over and hauling it's little bitty buddy to freedom.

    Though maybe another wind event would solve this problem?

    • by cenc (1310167)

      You know that was my first thought as a solution when I read that it was stuck. Why can't they have the other one go over and at least push?

      Two problems with that came to mind. How far away is the other one? What if we get them both stuck? Call AAA.

      • by rickb928 (945187)
        Stick out the trencher and get it caught on the other one. Yes, they might be stuck together forever. Darn.
  • ...A time-lapse video of the night sky on Mars, the stars rolling overhead...

    • ...A time-lapse video of the night sky on Mars, the stars rolling overhead...

      There's a cheap way you can fake it. Just look at a time-lapse video of the night sky on Earth. Same stars. Mars isn't THAT far away.

      • by bgarcia (33222)
        The moons are different.

        The planets may appear a bit different (Jupiter being brighter than Venus?).

        And I wonder how meteors might look different in the Martian sky.

      • by Ihlosi (895663)
        There's a cheap way you can fake it. Just look at a time-lapse video of the night sky on Earth. Same stars. Mars isn't THAT far away.

        The stars might be the same, but things get much more interesting if you have less distant object (planets, moons) in the picture.

  • Once they figure out how Spirit is stuck, they might be better off charging the batteries up in the event that the wheels or arm will need the power to work its way out of its predicament.

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