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Huge Martian Dust Storm Threatens Rovers 164

Posted by Zonk
from the sit-tight-little-robots dept.
Riding with Robots writes "NASA reports that a severe ongoing dust storm on the Red Planet has blocked 99 percent of the direct sunlight that powers the Opportunity rover. If these conditions persist for too long, it could finally bring an end to the marathon mission of this robot geologist, and perhaps of its partner Spirit as well. 'Before the dust storms began blocking sunlight last month, Opportunity's solar panels had been producing about 700 watt hours of electricity per day, enough to light a 100-watt bulb for seven hours. When dust in the air reduced the panels' daily output to less than 400 watt hours, the rover team suspended driving and most observations, including use of the robotic arm, cameras and spectrometers to study the site where Opportunity is located ... A possible outcome of this storm is that one or both rovers could be damaged permanently or even disabled. Engineers will assess the capability of each rover after the storm clears.'"
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Huge Martian Dust Storm Threatens Rovers

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  • by eln (21727) * on Friday July 20, 2007 @05:02PM (#19933349) Homepage
    Has anyone checked on the Buggalo? This could be another kidnap attempt by the native Martians.
  • Dust Devils (Score:4, Funny)

    by MathFox (686808) on Friday July 20, 2007 @05:04PM (#19933371)
    When the storm has settled the dust devils will come to clean the rovers... no worry!
    • Re:Dust Devils (Score:4, Informative)

      by Rakishi (759894) on Friday July 20, 2007 @05:09PM (#19933429)
      The problem is that without power the heaters don't run, without heaters the components get too cold and stop working permanently..
      • Actually, that would be could stop working permanently. The truth is, that nobody knows what will happen. It it probable that it will get cold enough that it will break some solder joints, but that will depend on how good those particular joints were.
        • ...are sensitive to extremes of temperature, and are needed to maintain temperature stability. Frankly I am surprised they have lasted as long as this, given the treatment they are getting.
    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by ArcherB (796902) *

      When the storm has settled the dust devils will come to clean the rovers... no worry!
      If you don't clean the red dust off, they become Red Rovers

      • by jd (1658)
        That would need to be the game. The Red Rover gate in The Three Investigators looks nothing like the robots.... well, depending on how close that storm gets, I suppose they might...
    • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

      by Seismologist (617169)
      There was an earlier article on Slashdot that mentioned a problem with dust settling on the solar panels and subsequently reducing their efficiency. I wonder if this storm will cause dust to settle on the panels or is the wind to strong? Anyway, this dust situation sounds like a persistent problem for longer run mission, which clearly was never the "primary" intent of these rovers to begin with, which leads me to my point/question: Will future rovers have dust wipers like the kind have on vehicles? It on
  • by Anonymous Crowhead (577505) on Friday July 20, 2007 @05:05PM (#19933377)
    These rovers have lasted something like 15 times their original intended/predicted lifespan.
  • Turbines (Score:1, Funny)

    by RunFatBoy.net (960072) *
    It's too bad these rovers don't have some sort of wind turbines to be utilized for energy. They could have extended an already impressive run.

    Jim
    RunFatBoy ( http://www.runfatboy.net/ [runfatboy.net] ) - A workout system for beginners.
    • Re:Turbines (Score:5, Informative)

      by Cervantes (612861) on Friday July 20, 2007 @05:35PM (#19933647) Journal

      It's too bad these rovers don't have some sort of wind turbines to be utilized for energy. They could have extended an already impressive run.
      That would be nice, but don't forget Mars has something like 99% less atmosphere than us. So little air pressure that if you jumped out of a plane on Mars and popped a parachute, you'd be the next crater Spirit went to study. I just can't see it being practical, at least on the scale of the rovers.
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by Fallen Kell (165468)
      Space, weight, and environmental limitations make this impractical. Before this mission, we bairly understood the make-up of the dust and how much there may be, let alone being able to create a turbine shaft with seals to keep the dust out of the mechanism (to keep it from causing the prop from binding). The space limitations are another issue. It is not easy to package up a turbo prop into a smaller form-factor for initial launch and travel, unlike the ability to fold up a solar array. At best, what this t
      • Re:Turbines (Score:4, Informative)

        by mollymoo (202721) on Friday July 20, 2007 @06:12PM (#19933989) Journal

        At best, what this teaches us is to include a "wiper" system for at least part of the panels so that we can maintain at least a minimal section of solar panel to generate energy for the essential gear and would give us the ability to keep the rover alive long enough to let the wind that exists on the plant to "clean" the other panels in the time after a storm.

        The problem is that the dust storms are blocking the light before it hits the panels, not just covering the panels with dust. I doubt they'll know how much dust has accumulated on the panels as a result of this storm till it's over.

        • I doubt they'll know how much dust has accumulated on the panels as a result of this storm till it's over.
          What's worrying us rover-watchers are the twin problems of (a) Odyssey may not see the rovers on the next downlink pass (or the one after that, or..) and (b) that even if they're still alive when the storm ends, there's now a lot of dust in the atmosphere with nothing to keep it up - at which point the rovers could die from the dust fallout.
    • Re:Turbines (Score:5, Informative)

      by Surt (22457) on Friday July 20, 2007 @06:06PM (#19933943) Homepage Journal
      You're confusing the possibility that a dust storm can lift enough dust into the atmosphere to block sunlight with the possibility that the wind intensity is sufficiently high to drive a wind turbine. Mars has a very thin atmosphere, and this wind isn't nearly enough to drive a turbine that would produce enough power for the rovers. Lifting dust is a lot easier than pushing the blades of a fan.

      Also, whatever turbine you added would go into the weight of the rover, which then affects the parachute/airbag requirements for landing, and during drive around time you're carrying that extra weight uselessly most of the time.

      This setup:
      http://store.motorwavegroup.com/8-micro-turbines-w ith-generato.html [motorwavegroup.com]

      generates about twice as much power as the article suggests is needed, on earth (presumably 1atm pressure) at 10m/s wind speed.

      http://www.nap.edu/openbook/0309084261/html/22.htm l [nap.edu]
      claims that martian windspeeds peak at 50m/s, but that the dynamic pressure is only 1/9th of that due to the lower atmospheric pressure.
      That gives you an equivalent of only 6m/s equivalent speed (at peak intensity!).

      So ... even at peak windspeed it's going to be hard to generate enough power with turbines that the rover could reasonably carry, and that would all be deadweight for the solar panels during non wind times.

      • by Qrlx (258924)
        How about something like a helium (or hydrogen) balloon floating in the wind, and the strain on the wire tethering it to the rover produces energy? I'm guessing that wouldn't produce much energy, and in such a thin atmosphere it would have to be a pretty big balloon. And then there's the part converting the tension to electricity, not sure how that's gonna work either.

        Well, nevermind then. Glad we had this talk.
    • by yusing (216625)
      It's too bad the Rovers can't tip their solar panels N degrees to let gravity clean (much of) the dust off.

      It's also too bad there's not a human being there -- but hey, we got problems here on Earth. Just wait'l we get those cleared up.
  • Is this related to the dust storm in Arizona [wcbd.com]? (photo and video) Maybe the giant face of Mars saw Arizona and decided he could out-dust-storm us.
    • by sokoban (142301)
      Maybe the mars rovers were faked by the same people who did the moon landing.
    • From TFA: "(...) about 700 watt hours of electricity per day, enough to light a 100-watt bulb for seven hours (...)"
      From this other one: "(...) the dust caused visibility to drop near zero, which translates to people not being able to see in front of them."

      This is not a coincidence, it really looks like they were written by the same person, with the same everyone-is-stupid-and-must-be-explained-everythi n g-style.
      Why stop there?
      "Arizona dust storm, which translates to a storm of dust"
      "could be damaged
    • by master_p (608214)
      So the Rovers are in Arizona? I knew it! just like we did not go to the moon, we did not go to Mars as well!
    • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

      by Megane (129182)
      Go into Firehose, find the article (it'll be a dark green bar), click on "-", then click on "dupe".
      • by Cervantes (612861)

        Go into Firehose, find the article (it'll be a dark green bar), click on "-", then click on "dupe".
        That's right folks... "The Firehose: Because the Editors just don't care anymore"
  • So now I guess we'll be seeing on of those Energizer commercials showing that rabbit strolling by a pile of dead, dust covered rovers, playing that drum.
  • Panel Sweepers (Score:3, Insightful)

    by rez_rat (1618) on Friday July 20, 2007 @05:15PM (#19933479)
    I saw a show on Spirit and Opportunity's trek a few nights back. Pretty amazing couple of machines. I was very impressed. When they brought up the topic of their panels' susceptibility to dust and dust storms, I was wondering why no one had thought to install a couple of panel sweepers or something (like windshield wipers)?

    All in all, these two little guys have done pretty well.

    S-
    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by ForestGrump (644805)
      They opted to not install panel wipers because of the added mechanical complexity, weight, possible damage in transport to mars, and that they didn't know how Martian dust would behave to the wipers.
      Grump
      • Re:Panel Sweepers (Score:5, Informative)

        by evanbd (210358) on Friday July 20, 2007 @06:08PM (#19933961)
        As I understand it, they were pretty sure they could add useful panel wipers -- not perfect, but useful. Or maybe peel-away disposable covers. Or any of several options. The eventual decision was that there were several viable methods, and they all would take the place of about 1 instrument. And the researchers decided they'd rather have another instrument, even if it meant shorter life. As it turns out, they got very lucky and mostly don't need the wipers.
    • by schwaang (667808)
      Couldn't they use the robotic arm to clean the panels before it's too late?
      Maybe just bang them against the side a bit, if they didn't include a mini-broom.
    • Would not help (Score:3, Insightful)

      by WindBourne (631190)
      This is not about the build-up on the panels. This is about sand in the air. What the next rover (MSL) would be better with is either full nukes, or having simple nuke heaters onboard combined with solar panels for powering all else.
    • They need to find water double quick so they can give the rovers a wash.
  • Why don't they have a high tech windshield wiper for the solar panel? Or a transparent window shade that could prevent dust from hitting the solar panel during the storm? Ultra sonic shaker to shake the dust off? There must be a way.
    • I have often thought they could use some compressed gas to blow the dust off the solar panels. It may be useful for other things as well, such as blowing the dust off a rock under study. When looking at images you can see that where they have ground down a surface with the RAT tool, there is often a lot of dust on them, left over from the operation. They could have an efficient little compressor that runs as a background task filling up the reservoir. Even water under pressure could be useful for some inter

  • 700 watt hours of electricity per day, enough to light a 100-watt bulb for seven hours.
    Are people really so stupid that they need this explained to them? And if so, how on earth do they ever make sense of their electric bill?
    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by Loadmaster (720754)
      Maybe electric companies convert to a usable measurement like Library of Congress' or width of human hair. I know mine comes as a percent of how many dollars it would take to circle the earth.

      Swi
    • by corsec67 (627446)
      Easy. The electric bill says "Pay $ammount", so they pay $ammount.

      Now, checking to see if that is the correct ammmount, on the other hand...
    • What you might not realize, however, is that it's also enough to power a 70-watt bulb for ten hours!
    • by Cervantes (612861)

      700 watt hours of electricity per day, enough to light a 100-watt bulb for seven hours.

      Are people really so stupid that they need this explained to them? And if so, how on earth do they ever make sense of their electric bill?
      You presume people make sense of their electric bills, instead of just paying it like blind obedient sheep.
      Your comments are at odds with your low UID. It confuses me.
      • I have somehow retained the dregs of my youthful idealism. It never fails to disappoint.
      • by Gulthek (12570)
        High five digits are a low UID now? I thought *I* was late to the party. When slashdot first introduced user registration I was like, why?, for a couple months.

        But still, when someone reads 700 watt hours surely they comprehend that's can be expressed as 100 watts times seven hours, ya? Eh.
        • yeah,.. that was me, too. "Register? What, give my name and email address to some random website?? You're kidding me, right?" *sigh* ;)

          The power expression is the one used by JPL / Caltech when speaking of the power the panels generate. I'm nowhere near EE enough to be able to debate the pros and cons of alternatives...

    • "And if so, how on earth do they ever make sense of their electric bill?"

      Let me guess. You have a watt metre and have measured and labeled every light fixture and outlet in the house. You then calculate the time of use and multiply that by the rate of electricity. If it doesnt match your bill you bitch and scream at the electric company about them "stealing ur powers".

      Meanwhile us hoopleheads just pay the damn thing and let the elecric company handle the monitoring. What fools we are!

      • My, aren't we crabby today?

        Don't be silly. For one thing, I don't speak l33t. For another, the benefit of knowing how something you're paying for is being measured is key to understanding how to economize if you feel the need. For example, if you're trying to decide between a propane and electric hot-water heater, you'll want the one that's cheaper to run. They tell you an estimate of the cost, but that's based on average rates and usage. You can get a much better idea if you understand your own usage patt

      • by 1u3hr (530656)
        You have a watt metre and have measured...

        How many metres per watt do you get?

    • by dave562 (969951)
      I for one am so stupid that I need it explained to me. I'm sure that if I had been interested in the subject before now that I could have researched it and quickly found the answer. Yet up until now, all I really cared about is that a 100-watt bulb is brighter than a 60-watt bulb and will cost me more per month to turn on.
      • "Researched it"? How old are you? This is high school-level knowledge. To be blunt, it's nothing short of idiotic to be paying for something where you don't understand what it is you're paying for or how it's measured. Your electric bill shows you how much energy you've used in kilowatt-hours. If you've been paying it every month without knowing what a kilowatt-hour is, you might as well pay for gasoline without knowing the size of a [litre|gallon].
        • by dave562 (969951)
          Or maybe I just don't want to bother myself with the little details of life. Electricity costs what it costs just like gas costs what it costs. Yet unlike gasoline, I can't go find another electricity provider. My electric bill is pretty stable in the $25-30 a month range. I make enough money to cover the cost. As long as I don't add any major new appliances that suck down huge amounts of juice I can anticipate what my monthly bill will be. I do understand what I am paying for. I am paying for the pr
          • You're bitter about something. I can tell.

            So you're saying you forgot everything you learned in high school. That means most of American history. (Or British history, or Eritrean history, or wherever it is you come from.) I sure as hell hope you don't vote, because you obviously have insufficient background knowledge to make civic-minded decisions about anything.

            No, I don't know the brand names of the chips in my car any more than I know the manufacturers of the light switches in my house. But I do know h

    • by geekoid (135745)
      How about people who happen to be ignorant of what the watt measurement means?
      I would think there are a lot of people not even out of high school that read slashdot.

      I would wager that there was a time in hyour life when you didn't know that the watt rating was a rating over time.

      • How about people who happen to be ignorant of what the watt measurement means?

        They are probably quite happy thinking in terms of watt hours per hour

      • TFA was a NASA press release, presumably aimed at adults, and the phrase in question was taken from it. It's one thing if /. felt the need to explain this to younger readers, but I think this is just something an adult who buys electricity should know.

  • The more I learn of Mars, the less I think that any manned mission to the Dust Storm Planet would be anything more than stupid. And probably suicidal.

    Luna has it's own dust problems, but no months-long hemisphere-wide storms, and that's a Very Good Thing.

    • Nah. Juse needs a little kudzoo to brighten up the place and hold the soil down.
    • by WindBourne (631190) on Friday July 20, 2007 @05:52PM (#19933805) Journal
      I volunteer. I am willing to bet that you would find more than 10K just in America who would go. This is the ULTIMATE adventure. Hell, if you are worried about dieing, that can happen in ALL sorts of ways here on earth.
      • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

        by R2.0 (532027)
        Larry Niven tells a story about a NASA panel he was on in the 80's regarding future exploration. It was obvious that the NASA administrator was a bureaucratic hack, and Niven got irritated and started pushing him.

        Niven asked him what the future plans for colonizing the Moon was, and the man replied, incredulously, "Why would anyone want to live on the moon?"

        Niven turned to the assembled reporters and said "Why don't we ask? Let's have a show of hands: How many of you would want to live on the Moon" About
    • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

      by agengr (1098271)
      Martian dust particles have been "smoothed" by millions of years of weathering. Lunar dust is jagged and more like a sea of glass shards, and the Moon lacks wind to provide any erosion.

      If we can get a handle on lunar dust, Martian dust really shouldn't be a big problem.
      • by Nutria (679911)
        Lunar dust is jagged and more like a sea of glass shards,

        That's one of the "issues" I was referring to.

        If we can get a handle on lunar dust, Martian dust really shouldn't be a big problem.

        Pray tell how "months-long dust storm that coats the solar arrays rendering them ineffectual and us very, very, very cold and powerless" is remotely similar to "sea of tiny glass static-electric shards"

        • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

          by agengr (1098271)
          Just about all manned architecture studies use nuclear generators for a number of reasons, not the least of which is Martian weather. A manned crew would not be left without power or heating due to a dust storm of any length. The bigger concern with Martian dust is that it would erode airlock seals, cling to EVA suits, get tracked into the habitat, and generally screw-up mechanical hardware. That's the same exact problem we face with lunar dust (probably more so), and developing techniques and equippment t
          • by Nutria (679911)
            Just about all manned architecture studies use nuclear generators

            RTGs don't generate enough power, and "regular" nuclear generators a way past too massive.

            What kind of generator are you referring to?

            • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

              by agengr (1098271)
              The architecture studies are assuming maturation of compact nuclear power. I think that is a perfectly reasonable assumption to make since we aren't talking about going to Mars today, tomorrow, or even ten years from now. The point of an architecture study is to say "We need technology 'x' to make the mission possible." Solar power is DOA for manned Mars missions, so we won't be going until we have compact nuclear power. Over about 5 kw, RTGs are already more mass efficient than solar power on Mars and the
  • Aw, poor little Rover needs a little snack or some munchies to give him a little pick-me-up! Rover is a very loyal and obedient friend... I think we need to blast a rocket off with a nice care package: send him some chew-toys and other treats.
  • by isomeme (177414) <cdberry@gmail.com> on Friday July 20, 2007 @05:43PM (#19933713) Homepage Journal
    700 watt hours of electricity per day, enough to light a 100-watt bulb for seven hours

    But it would light a nanowatt bulb for seven hundred billion hours -- that's nearly eighty million years! Isn't science amazing?

  • This should tell ppl that if we are going to continue sending new robots AND humans, then we are going to need a real power source. One possibility is geothermal, but that has to be ascertained. About the only real choice is nukes. Afterall, I know that I do not mind risking my life on something like this, but I would want the best chance possible. I would assume that anybody who goes to Mars will want the same.
  • by Dun Malg (230075) on Friday July 20, 2007 @06:09PM (#19933965) Homepage

    Opportunity's solar panels had been producing about 700 watt hours of electricity per day, enough to light a 100-watt bulb for seven hours.
    Gee, thanks "Riding with Robots", that in-depth analysis really added a lot. How many Statues-of-Liberty-on-its-side long is that? How many Libraries of Congress? Did you know that if you laid a man's digestive tract out long a straight line, he would die?

    Really, it's not fair to blame mediocre writers for writing badly. Ideally, it is the job of the editor to keep crap off the front page. Of course, the quality of the editors/janitors at slashdot needs no more elaboration...
    • by geekoid (135745)
      While not the best writing, his example is perfectly good.
      It's one thing when someone uses a vague thing for a measurement, it's another when the example PERFECTLY FITS.

    • by sighted (851500)
      Interestingly enough, it was the editors, not I, who added the part about the watt hours, which in turn comes from the NASA press release I was referencing. Not to heap any more crap on the editors -- I think they do a reasonably good job considering they have people like you to contend with.
      • by Dun Malg (230075)

        Interestingly enough, it was the editors, not I, who added the part about the watt hours, which in turn comes from the NASA press release I was referencing.

        Well then, allow me to formally apologize for the barb, and redirect it jointly to NASA, for saying it, and to the editors, for thinking it bore repeating.

        Not to heap any more crap on the editors -- I think they do a reasonably good job considering they have people like you to contend with.

        Please. They don't "contend" with me or any other user (with the possible exception of occasionally secretly mod-bombing). They sit around scratching their collective asses and once in a while apparently randomly choosing an article submission and posting it (mis-quotation, false headlines, stupidly inflammatory editorial opinions optional). They can'

  • by PinkyGigglebrain (730753) on Friday July 20, 2007 @06:14PM (#19934001)
    Considering their history it would be premature to write them off so soon.

    When the storm ends and the dust settles and no signal is received from Spirit and Opportunity then, and only then, will I raise a glass in memory of those two incredible machines and the end of their mission.


    On a side note has anyone every thought of using Tesla's energy transmitter or other "beamed" energy delivery system (microwave?) to power a planetary probe? Use a big nuke power module, keep it in geostat orbit, or land it with the transmiter, and then drop the rovers down. years of power for the rovers and it could be used by later missions as well.
  • In TFA "Opportunity's solar panels had been producing about 700 watt hours of electricity per day, enough to light a 100-watt bulb for seven hours."

    Is there a single person who might be reading a Nasa story who needed that "fact" explained?

  • Hard to Believe (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Nom du Keyboard (633989) on Friday July 20, 2007 @09:49PM (#19935231)
    It's hard to believe that air so thin can hold up so much dust.
    • Huh? This is 'Interesting'? I'll let you in a secret...even deep space is filled with dust. You don't need an atmosphere to have dust. Heck, the 'atmosphere' of some distant exotic world could be MADE of fine dust for all we know.

      Mars may have an atmosphere that's quite thin comparted to ours, but it's far denser than vacuum and it's PLENTY to move megatons of dust around in the form or storms.
  • I guess the fear is that the batteries will flatten and the rovers will power off. But surely they would have thought to include a provision for bootup-on-power-restore? No? Oops...
  • by nagora (177841)
    700 watt hours ~= 2.5 mega-joules; 400 watt hours~= 1.4MJ . I'm not sure when "watt hours" became the standard unit of energy.

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