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NASA Space Science Technology

Thick Dust Alters NASA Mars Rover Plans 97

Posted by samzenpus
from the mars-wants-clear-weather! dept.
coondoggie writes "NASA's long-running Mars rover Opportunity is getting ready for the harsh Martian winter, but this year for the first time in its nearly eight-year history it needs a sunnier location to continue its work. NASA said the rover, which depends on solar power for energy, is sitting just south of Mars' equator and has worked through four Martian southern hemisphere winters. Being closer to the equator than its now defunct twin rover, Spirit, Opportunity has not needed to stay on a Sun-facing slope during previous winters but now its solar panels carry a thicker coating of Martian dust than before."
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Thick Dust Alters NASA Mars Rover Plans

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  • Windshield wipers (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Caerdwyn (829058) on Thursday January 05, 2012 @07:30PM (#38604700) Journal

    Windshield wipers! My kingdom for windshield wipers!

    A good guess is that, going forward, all new Mars landers will have either a wiper system or the ability to compress Martian atmosphere and then go POOF on the solar panels. Yes, more weight, but when the payoff is potentially many more functional months of service, it'd be worth it.

    • Re:Windshield wipers (Score:5, Informative)

      by f97tosc (578893) on Thursday January 05, 2012 @07:33PM (#38604726)

      A good guess is that, going forward, all new Mars landers will have either a wiper system or the ability to compress Martian atmosphere ...

      The new rover Curiosity currently en route to Mars has nuclear power.

    • by CanHasDIY (1672858) on Thursday January 05, 2012 @07:42PM (#38604796) Homepage Journal
      I would imagine someone at NASA thought of that, but since they lacked an engineering degree, they were swiftly beaten with cudgels...

      NASA Engineers: "There we go, fellas, the rover's done! Nothing to do now but stick it on a billion dollar rocket and send 'er off into space! Just have to hope it doesn't get too dusty too fast."

      NASA Janitor, passing by: "Uh... couldn't you just stick, I dunno, some windshield wipers or somethin' on it?"

      NASA Engineers: ...
      :O
      ...
      :|
      ...
      :O
      ...
      >:*
      ...
      *thump*
    • Re:Windshield wipers (Score:5, Informative)

      by Chibi Merrow (226057) <[ten.ytinifniyeknom] [ta] [worremrm]> on Thursday January 05, 2012 @07:52PM (#38604880) Homepage Journal

      They thought of all these solutions, and in the end it just made more sense to make the solar panels larger than do anything complicated.

      Don't forget these rovers were designed for a 90 day mission.

      • by rasmusbr (2186518)

        Like someone pointed out below they didn't know that certain wind conditions (basically dust devils) would clean the solar panels periodically. Had they know that I think they might have designed the rovers to last 900 days. NASA made a big PR number about how the solar panels would run out in a few months, which they then didn't thanks to the dust devils.

        Now, I wonder if it's possible to make the cleaning events more effective, for example by coating the solar panels with a slippery coating, or by tilting

      • by Whiteox (919863)

        Why not take the easier option and drive the damn thing through one of the canals and get the water to wash it off.
        Simple!

    • Dust Devils (Score:5, Informative)

      by PIPBoy3000 (619296) on Thursday January 05, 2012 @07:52PM (#38604882)
      It's my understanding that dust devils [astronomy.com] have done a pretty good job of keeping the solar panels clean over the years.
    • by Kjella (173770) on Thursday January 05, 2012 @08:02PM (#38604982) Homepage

      Many options were considered, none found effective and reliable against the fine, dry dust on Mars. In fact that was the whole reason the original mission was limited to three months, if they knew a good way to remove it they would have. Luckily winds clear the panels from time to time, the weather hasn't helped recently but it's still running after 8 years and tilting towards the sun is no big deal. Why would you bother to change a design that works so well? Maybe give it a slightly bigger solar panel so it has a bit better margins but overall there's no reason to change it. By the way, how many times do you think this exact suggestion has come up over the last 8 years?

      • by Tablizer (95088)

        I've accidentally switched on the car wipers when there was dust on the windshield a few times, and often it made the problem worse by compressing the dust more tightly against the windshield allowing more layers to settle. Without having sample Mars dust to test, it's hard to know what the result would be.

        The dust-devil experience suggests that compressed air may be a better option, or at least the most tested one.

        Anyhow, the next rover is "nuclear" powered so such studies are a non-issue for a while.

      • by syousef (465911)

        Many options were considered, none found effective and reliable against the fine, dry dust on Mars. In fact that was the whole reason the original mission was limited to three months, if they knew a good way to remove it they would have.

        I find that hard to believe. There must be a half dozen good ways to do it. Just off the top of my head 3-4 transparent disposable sheets of film, perhaps with a drop or two of oil or alcohol between them to prevent sticking, would limit sunlight a little bit initially, but as they became worn could be discarded, restoring the surface to "good as new". You'd have to ensure little enough lubricant between the sheets so that when the new layer is revealed dust doesn't stick to them, but I can't imagine that's

        • perhaps with a drop or two of oil or alcohol between the

          That's thinking in Earth terms. This thing was in hard vacuum for more than a year.

        • Re:Windshield wipers (Score:5, Informative)

          by agrif (960591) on Thursday January 05, 2012 @09:39PM (#38605680) Homepage

          I believe one of the major problems is that dust on Mars can become very, very fine. There's no rain to clear dust from the atmosphere, so the little grains just keep hitting things and breaking apart, over and over. Martian fines can get down near 1 micron; for comparison, your red blood cells are about 8 microns wide. This stuff gets on everything. It goes through everything.

          • by stevelinton (4044)

            As I understand it calling it dust is technically a misnomer. Experts use the term "fines". Calling this stuff dust is like called fine talc gravel, except worse.

        • by aXis100 (690904)

          They use these motocross motorbikes goggles, and they work well. Sometimes a roller at each end so you can spool out a new section of clear film, other times they are just a stack of films.

      • Re:Windshield wipers (Score:4, Interesting)

        by wierd_w (1375923) on Thursday January 05, 2012 @09:44PM (#38605716)

        One would think it would be like removing the extremely fine dust from an LP.

        Back in the day, there was this thing called an "Ion Gun".
        (Example product) [lptunes.com]

        It basically compresses and slightly ionizes atmospheric gas, then directs it at the surface to be cleaned. The electrical charge in the gas causes the dust to be electrostatically repelled from the surface, and the forced air blows it off.

        Surely such a toy could be attached to one of the arms of future solar powered rovers for periodic cleaning purposes, and even possibly for electrochemical experiments?

      • by drwho (4190)

        Yes, I am in agreement. People at NASA are not, on the whole, stupid, though unfortunately NASA can be made to look stupid because of the political and economic conditions it has to work under. Often people point out the oft-repeated fable about NASA spending millions of dollars to develop a space pen whereas the Soviets just used pencils. It's a lot more complicated than that, see Snopes http://www.snopes.com/business/genius/spacepen.asp for an explanation. Too often slashdotters, and Americans in general,

    • If they had expected to run these units as long as they did, I'm sure they would have already put them on there. They only banked on ~90 days, so there was no perceived need for this kind of thing. Right now, they're running on extended bonus time.
    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      by Synerg1y (2169962)

      lol, how did people miss this? We've known mars has storms since we got decent telescopes.

    • by Ogive17 (691899)
      That could end up scratching the solar panel surface.
    • And scratch them? Seriously? There is little moisture there. And the wind is thin. In addition, the dirt is sticking, so you would need water to make it come off. However, rather than wipers, a small air pump that can blow high pressure air over the surface.
    • by laejoh (648921)
      In hungarian; "I will not buy this solar panel; it is scratched."
      • by Whiteox (919863)

        Nem fogom megvenni ezt a napelem, mert karcos.

        • by Whiteox (919863)

          To Moderators. I called laejoh's bluff. I think his comment was a Monty Python reference about the Hungarian-English phrasebook sketch. BTW, there was no Hungarian actually spoken during the sketch.

  • by Anonymous Coward

    If only the rovers had a smart cover, they could turn on and as you open it and it cleans the solar panels from finger prints every time! Martian finger prints in this case.

  • If it ever found water
  • by sconeu (64226) on Thursday January 05, 2012 @07:44PM (#38604818) Homepage Journal

    Our gelsacs hunger for the words of the mighty K'Breel on the battle against the invaders from the blue world.

    • by Tackhead (54550) on Thursday January 05, 2012 @09:57PM (#38605780)
      K'Breel, Speaker for the Council, was on his way from a late (as opposed to late-breaking) Council Meeting to his domicile, where he intended to consume nutrients. While exiting the Council Hall, an enthusiastic Citizen beseeched him thus:

      Our gelsacs hunger for the words of the mighty K'Breel on the battle against the invaders from the blue world.

      Always willing to place the needs of his Citizens before his own, the Speaker replied: "What more needs be said? One invader lies immobile and frozen in the plains. A second lies buried in a slowly-accumulating layer of carbox at the northern pole, a third never left the blue world's gravity well and spirals ever inward to a fiery doom (our analysts suggest a 75% probability of any surviving parts being condemned to dissolve in the toxic blue soup!), and although a fourth may have recently escaped the blue world's gravity well, it is destined to spend the next season squarely in the crosshairs of our Orbital Defense Forces, and yet you still require a progress report against this - this last struggling holdout?"

      "Let me reassure you personally, dear Citizen: as surely as dust continues to be distributed over the invader's solar panels, the Council sees no crisis, and barely an Opportunity. But even the dimmest of opportunities is worth seizing!"

      ~``~ideo~`ransmission fr`m news ~eport~~`~`hecksum mismatc~~``~~``

      Having delayed a hungry Speaker from his return home after a Council meeting, it is reported that the equally hungry gelsacs of enthusiastic citizen #64226 were seized, freeze-dried, ground into powder, and then tossed into the winds as part of the DDoS (Distributed Dusting of Solarpanels) attack still being conducted by our brave forces against the remaining invader at Devaur's End.

      "A shining example to all who live on our fair world, this enthusiastic Citizen took advantage of a rare Opportunity to take the battle directly to the enemy, and he shall be remembered fondly! EVER ONWARD TO VICTORY!" (Oh, and thank you for the excuse, Citizen. Don't worry too much. Sometimes they grow back!)

  • ugg splogs (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Thursday January 05, 2012 @07:45PM (#38604822)

    why are we reading stories about Nasa on some shitty "network" splog laden with adverts ?

    we should be reading about this on Nasa's site the internet was supposed to cut out the middleman instead its full of shitty sites who do nothing but take without giving anything back.

    news for nerds ? news for desperate blog owners

    • And for pointing out the truth that we could be reading about this story from the source - NASA - instead of a site you correctly characterize as a money-grubbing, ad-laden blog filled with 3rd hand information, you get modded "troll" in typical Slashdot style.

      Bravo.

    • by McGruber (1417641)

      why are we reading stories about Nasa on some shitty "network" splog laden with adverts ?

      Because we want to slashdot the shitty "network" splog, not NASA!

      Thanks for pointing out that the splog was laden with adverts. Most of us wouldn't have noticed.

  • I'm building a Wal Mart and a few bungalows next to Elon Musk's Martian Mansion. The invisible hand of the free market will get us to Mars in a few years thanks to spider-silk space elevators.
  • . . . we could send someone up to dust them off, right?

    "Check your oil for you, sir? That left front tire could use a bit of air . . . "

    Now I remember why we used to call them "service stations" instead of "gas stations" . . .

  • Pray that they do not alter it further.

    Or that it does not have to be altered further.

  • What if: (Score:2, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward

    What if the martian winds were to un-bury spirit's wheels and make it mobile? Would it start sending data back to earth? Has it ever stopped sending data?
    It would be super cool if they were able to get it working again with a little help from the martian environment.

    • Spirit is dead.. (Score:2, Informative)

      by Anonymous Coward

      yes, Spirit is not sending data. It either got too cold, or something, but it's gone silent. The folks at JPL spent several months trying to contact it, but no joy.

    • It was not able to run its heaters so critical components (batteries?) were destroyed by the cold. So even if the wheels were uncovered and the remaining dust was removed its solar panels, it would not be functional. Remember that it went through the summer on Mars and got a good dose of solar energy, but it did not even have enough functionality to send out a ack signal on its low-gain antenna, never mind swivel its high-gain antenna. It is totally kaput, alas, but it went way beyond its expected lifet
  • The real story is WHERE Opportunity will be wintering. It has found a nice cozy place with some very interesting rock outcrops. Clay? Sulfates? Who knows but the pictures look very interesting. Another dust issue is that the Min-TES has been disabled by dust. Opportunity could really, really use Mini-TES now in it current location. Another dust issue is what MSL will be doing, if anything, about dust on its instruments.

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