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Thu, Nov 13, 2008

Dust Storm Cuts Energy Supply Of NASA Mars Rover Spirit

Rover 'Vulnerable' From Low Power State

After nearly five years of yeoman service, one of NASA's Mars rovers may be nearing its end. A dust storm on Mars has cut into the amount of sunlight reaching the solar array on NASA's Mars Exploration Rover Spirit, leaving the rover in a vulnerable state.

Spirit's solar array produced only 89 watt hours of energy during the rover's 1,725th Martian day, which ended on November 9. This is the lowest output by either Spirit or its twin, Opportunity, in their nearly five years on Mars, and much less energy than Spirit needs each day. The charge level of Spirit's batteries is dropping so low, it risks triggering an automated response of the rover trying to protect itself.

"The best chance for survival for Spirit is for us to maintain sequence control of the rover, as opposed to it going into automated fault protection," said John Callas of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, CA project manager for Spirit and Opportunity.

Mission controllers are commanding Spirit to turn off some heaters, including one that protects a science instrument, the miniature thermal emission spectrometer, and take other measures to reduce energy consumption. The commands will tell Spirit not to try communicating again until Thursday. While pursuing that strategy the team also plans to listen to Spirit frequently during the next few days to detect signals the rover might send if it does go into a low-energy fault protection mode.

Mars weather forecasts suggest the dust storm may be clearing now or in the next few days. However, the dust falling from the sky onto Spirit's solar array panels also could leave a lingering reduction in the amount of electricity the rover can produce.

Another dust storm -- this one near the Northern pole of Mars -- is to blame for the loss of signal from NASA's Mars Phoenix Lander, as well. As ANN reported, NASA lost contact with the five-month-old lander November 2.

Phoenix wasn't expected to survive the Martian winter, though NASA lost the signal from the lander sooner than anticipated.

FMI: www.nasa.gov/mars

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