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.
Dust from the sky has settled on both the rover deck and the surrounding landscape. The dust-covered solar cells will not be able to generate as much power as when they were clean. Unless a puff of wind dusts off the solar panels, Spirit may have difficulty surviving the approaching Martian winter.
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.
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.
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.
It was to be a Martian summer to remember. Just one month ago, the Mars Exploration Rovers were set to embark on long-awaited adventures. At Meridiani Planum, Opportunity was preparing for its grand entrance into the magnificent Victoria Crater and on the other side of the planet Spirit was finally going to explore the top of Home Plate, an old, intriguing volcanic formation in the Gusev Crater area. Then a series of dust storms hit suddenly, it was a Martian summer to remember alright, but for far different, windswept reasons.