NASA's Opportunity Rover Survives 8th Harsh Winter on Mars
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:
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."
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.
Neither tilt nor dust nor gloom of Martian winter stays Opportunity from the patient completion of its appointed rounds. Rover braves yet another season, almost 14 years into a 90-day mission. https://t.co/r8onMVxp3C pic.twitter.com/0j9GVTe9DJ— NASA JPL (@NASAJPL) December 7, 2017
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.