NASA's Opportunity Rover Survives 8th Harsh Winter on Mars

Saturday, 09 December 2017 - 12:34PM
Mars
NASA
Saturday, 09 December 2017 - 12:34PM
NASA's Opportunity Rover Survives 8th Harsh Winter on Mars
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NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell Univ./Arizona State Univ.
NASA's Opportunity rover might not be the most famous craft on Mars anymore (the newer Curiosity rover tends to steal that spotlight), but it's been trucking across the Martian surface all the same. 

And it's been traveling much farther than it was ever supposed to - Opportunity just completed the darkest portion of its eighth Martian winter, which is approximately eight Martian winters longer than it was expected to survive. Since it relies on solar panels, that portion of the year is always an uneasy one, but the panels once again survived the ordeal in good condition, which it'll need for a potentially massive dust storm expected to pass over the craft in 2018. 

When it first came to Mars in 2004 (a Martian year is 687 Earth days) alongside its sister rover Spirit, the twins were only expected to look for signs of water for about three months, with a frozen death likely to meet them in the winter. But both survived completely intact, and Spirit didn't meet its end until 2009, when it fell into a sand trap after breaking two wheels.

Opportunity is now on track to enter the "14th year of its 90 day mission," as NASA likes to put it.


Reminiscing on the project in a recent press release on Opportunity's exploits, Jennifer Herman of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory said:

Opening quote
"I didn't start working on this project until about Sol 300, and I was told not to get too settled in because Spirit and Opportunity probably wouldn't make it through that first Martian winter. Now, Opportunity has made it through the worst part of its eighth Martian winter."

We were worried that the dust accumulation this winter would be similar to some of the worst winters we've had, and that we might come out of the winter with a very dusty array, but we've had some recent dust cleaning that was nice to see. Now I'm more optimistic. If Opportunity's solar arrays keep getting cleaned as they have recently, she'll be in a good position to survive a major dust storm. It's been more than 10 Earth years since the last one and we need to be vigilant."
Closing quote


Beyond simply having a year that's nearly twice as long as Earth (1.888 times an Earth year to be exact), the Red Planet also has a tilted axis much like Earth, making its winters twice as long. The harshest, minimum-sunlight portion of that winter passed during October and November, while Opportunity explored "Perseverance Valley," an area that's suspected to be carved out by water.

Opportunity is especially fortunate that its solar panels have held up so well, because a planet-wide dust storm is a big possibility in the next Martin spring or summer, having not happened since 2007. Opportunity's going to need to be as prepared as ever, as a dust storm means less solar energy than ever for the rover, but NASA is optimistic.

 
NASA is now on track to send yet another rover to Mars in 2020, fittingly named the Mars 2020 rover. It'll be more advanced than ever, equipped with 23 cameras, each one 20 megapixels, compared to the weaker 17 cameras on Curiosity or the 10 cameras Opportunity or the late Spirit.

But that doesn't mean Opportunity won't be of use. The Martian surface is a big place, and the extra rover-power will surely be useful.
Science
Space
Mars
NASA
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