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Spirit in peril…


Mars is a tough planet to explore at the best of times, and these are unusually tough times on Mars. We just lost the Phoenix lander, after 5 months of operations up near the pole, and now there are very real concerns that Spirit, one of the two Mars Exploration Rovers, is in serious trouble too. The reason? Another dust storm.

There are many enemies on Mars for rovers and landers to face. The circuit-shattering cold; the rock-strewn landscape; the lack of light. But the worst enemy, the cruellest enemy, is probably the ever-present martian dust. As fine as talcum powder, the dust is, and gets, everywhere. It covers every rock, boulder and stone. It is piled up into deep drifts and dunes. It gets lofted into the sky by the gentle martian winds, turning that sky pink and wafting across the surface in tendrils and wisps of cinnamon and orange…

All very pretty when you look at it that way, but to a fragile spacecraft it’s evil, eeevil stuff: the dust is very corrosive, very scratchy, and it can affect joints, clog up filters and etch and scratch away at camera lenses. But worst of all it can blot out the Sun, and when you rely on the Sun for your power that’s not a good thing. Last week Phoenix was effectively killed by a dust storm that blew over its landing site, obscuring the Sun and stopping its batteries from charging. And today, right now as you read this, Spirit is being assaulted by another dust storm, one that has sent its already-not-brilliant power levels through the floor.

The rover – the first of the two MERs to land on Mars in 2004 (wow, 2004! I never stop being amazed by how long they’ve lasted!) – has not been heard from since Saturday, when the dust storm filled the sky and sent its power levels down to a terrifying 27%. That’s less, really, than it needs to survive – if you believe the manual. But Spirit and Oppy both tore up those manuals a long time ago, and have done countless things that everyone was sure were absolutely impossible, so no-one’s writing off Spirit yet. But there are very real worries that if the rover hasn’t been heard from by Friday then something is very badly wrong, and it might have perished.

All we can do is cross our fingers and wait for word.


One Response

  1. On the other hand, we don’t *expect* to hear anything until tomorrow. So until tomorrow, no news is good news. Fingers crossed!

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