The mission was only supposed to last three months, maybe six months if all went well, but the Mars Exploration Rovers surprised everyone. Demonstrating an uncanny kind of "robot right stuff," they roved far beyond what anyone dreamed and now, in a matter of days, Spirit and Opportunity will celebrate their 4th birthdays and rove into their fifth year of exploring the Red Planet.
Nail-biting drama and the inevitable signs of aging marked the month of November for the Mars Exploration Rovers, with Spirit accidentally encountering Tartarus, a dust-filled crater, on its way to its winter haven and having to thrash for its life, and Opportunity spending a lot of its time conducting tests on its RAT (rock abrasion tool), which lost another encoder.
The Mars Exploration Rovers have left wheel tracks all over their landing sites, but for some reason this pair of wheel tracks, left in the sand ripple on the rim of Victoria crater and now viewed from below, tickled my fancy. Thanks to James Canvin for the lovely panorama.
It might not be the stuff of Broadway musicals, but the Sun and did "come out tomorrow" on Mars. Just eight weeks after dust from severe storms darkened the Martian skies and threatened their solar-powered lives, the Mars Exploration Rovers finished dusting off as much as possible and took off on their long-anticipated expeditions this month, with Spirit roving onto an old volcanic formation called Home Plate and Opportunity cruising into Victoria Crater.
Mars Exploration Rover scientists, engineers and enthusiasts have been playing the waiting game for 10 weeks, watching the much-reported dust storm subside so that Opportunity could get back to doing what it does best - exploring craters.
I just received another batch of "tau" images from rover camera lead Jim Bell to add to my visualizations of the rovers' dark skies. These pictures provide a direct measurement of the opacity of the atmosphere between the rovers and the Sun.
With dust from the summer's storms floating down on and all around them, the Mars Exploration Rovers returned to their exploration agendas this month, picking up right where they left off in July when winds kicked the soils up into the southern hemisphere and forced them to hunker down and conserve power.
I haven't written an update on the dust storm at Mars recently for two reasons. For one, the rovers are out of immediate danger, so it wasn't as urgent. The other reason is that Jim Bell wanted Cornell to issue a press release with updated versions of the images and animations I've been putting together from the rovers' "tau" images.
Although Mars' atmosphere continues to be rather dusty, the storm has abated enough that both Mars Exploration Rovers have resumed a relatively normal level of activity. For Opportunity, that means a drive to the very edge of Victoria crater.