Tag Archives: MER

The air is clearing over Perseverance Valley – but what of Opportunity?

MER-B “Opportunity”, the little rover that could, obliterating all expectations for its longevity and roving for nearly 15 years on the surface of Mars….

The rover went silent back in June as one of Mars’ notorious planetwide dust storms kicked up.  Not all of the planet was equally affected, but the spot where Opportunity is trucking around, nicknamed Perseverance Valley for how damn tough this bot has proven to be, was severely affected.  It would be nearly as dark as night even in the middle of the day during the worst of the storm.  Even a nuclear-powered rover like Curiosity would struggle to be useful in those conditions (it was, ironically, much less dusty in Gale Crater), but for a solar-powered rover, such darkness is disastrous.  Opportunity likely completely depleted its batteries.  The good news is that it’s summer in Perseverance Valley, and the dust storm acted like a thermal blanket; the rover should have stayed warm enough that its batteries will not have frozen, as likely killed the Spirit rover when it got stuck in a position where it could not receive adequate sunlight over the long winter.  The bad news is . . . the rover’s been showing serious signs of age already, and it could be partially buried under dust now.  It’s hard to say what condition it’s in.

Still, the storm has been abating.  Soon, the tau (a measure of particulates in the atmosphere) is expected to drop below 1.5, at which point there should be enough light to charge the batteries up.  It is designed to recover from a complete power loss, and once it has sufficient power in its batteries, it should be able to phone home.  And to improve the odds some more, NASA is also sending regular “are you there?” signals to it, while listening for any signals via both the Deep Space Network and the orbiting assets such as Mars Odyssey 2001, Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, MAVEN, and ESA’s Mars Express, all of which are designed to act as relays for any compatible lander on the surface of Mars.

But NASA cannot afford to listen forever.  Once the tau drops below 1.5, a clock will start to tick.  They will continue actively pinging the rover for 45 days.  After that, a passive listening campaign will continue for another 90 days, in hopes that the upcoming dust devil season may clean off any accumulated dust on the solar panels.  But if Opportunity does not respond by the end of that campaign, they may have to finally close the door on this astonishingly successful mission.

So cross your fingers that Oppy calls home!  😉



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First Siding Spring image from Mars!

It doesn’t look like much, but here, taken by the venerable Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity’s Panoramic Camera is Comet Siding Spring.  The speckles you see throughout the image are not stars; they’re just noise.  But the stars are there, as streaks.  PanCam isn’t really optimized for night viewing.  It appears the mission team programmed it to track the comet’s predicted motion, because you can see star trails.  The comet itself, meanwhile, is a distinct smudge in the middle of the image.  There’s also what might be a meteor towards the bottom of the image, though it could also be noise as well.  Still, meteors were expected to be likely during the comet encounter, because its dusty coma was expected to brush the planet’s atmosphere.

It might not look like much (there are better comet images from Earth), but as far as I know it’s the first image of a comet from the surface of another world.


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Comet Siding Springs approaches Mars

Astronomers around the world are getting to watch an amazing event tomorrow — a very close flyby of Mars by Comet Siding Spring.  Normally, this would be just a curiosity (since astronomers have ruled out the possibility of a collision) but this is a very fortuitous time for the encounter — two ground vehicles (Opportunity and Curiosity) and five orbiters (Mars Odyssey 2001, Mars Express, Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, MAVEN, and Mangalyaan/Mars Orbiter Mission) are all ready to observe.  MAVEN is particularly fortuitous; it’s specialized for atmospheric observations, which makes it unusually well-equipped for this chance encounter with a comet’s tail.

Because yes, Mars is expected to pass through the comet’s tail.  It’s pretty awesome, and the view from Curiosity in particular should be spectacular.  (Curiosity is better equipped for night viewing, since it is nuclear powered and doesn’t need to conserve its batteries overnight.)  NASA’s GSFC has released this video highlighting the experience:

It won’t just be the seven vehicles at Mars observing the comet.  Other instruments, including the Hubble Space Telescope and STEREO-A, will also be watching, as will ground-based observers here on Earth.  Amateurs with larger telescopes (8″ or better) and favorable weather will be able to follow the comet as it approaches and passes the red planet.

I can’t wait to see the pictures.  😉

And if that weren’t exciting enough, the Orionids are starting up.  That’s debris from Comet Halley, and it will peak in a few days.  And on Thursday, many of us in North America (not all, alas) will be treated to a very nice partial solar eclipse.  It’s a good week!

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Awesome Spacecraft Animations!

Ever since the breathtaking Hollywood-esque animation JPL made for Mars Exploration Rovers, I’ve loved this sort of thing.  It shows you a view of the spacecraft that no one ever gets, and in the full-length videos (launch to landing), really drives home the incredible amount of material used and then jettisoned to get these things to their destination.  So today I’m collecting some great spacecraft animations for you to enjoy!

The Moon

Here’s LADEE, the most recent NASA spacecraft sent to the Moon.  It’s a relatively simple spacecraft, but lovingly animated all the same.


Here’s the first fully successful Martian lander, Viking 1, by YouTube user rseferino1, created using Orbiter Space Flight Simulator.  Some details are slightly off, like the launch vehicle’s paint scheme and a few subtle details of the launch sequence, but it’s pretty close.

Mars Pathfinder; this animation is from NASA (and starts with actual launch footage).  You’ll notice how the animation quality of these improves as these go on.

Mars Odyssey 2001, cruise to orbit insertion, set to original music by Armen Chakmakian:

Mars Exploration Rover, posted by MAAS Digital, the company JPL contracted to produce the video:

Mars Phoenix Lander, launch to landing and surface ops:

Mars Science Laboratory: Curiosity, from upper stage burnout to roving across Mars, with detailed depictions of the major instrument packages in operation.  It’s an amazingly detailed animation; you even see all the counterweights jettisoned during entry to manipulate the vehicle’s center of gravity:

Not all missions to Mars have been successes.  This animation shows what Phobos-Grunt would have done had its upper stage/cruise stage (a modified Fregat booster) not left it stranded in a dangerously low Earth orbit.  It was a magnificent spacecraft with a very ambitious mission that would have made history by returning samples from Phobos.  One interesting comparison can be made between this and the Viking video.  While the large Viking Orbiter dropped the large Viking Lander, here the large Phobos-Grunt lander releases a small Orbiter.  That was to be Yinghuo-1, the first Chinese interplanetary spacecraft.  Phobos-Grunt has to be big, though, because it has to not only land on Phobos, but carry a vehicle to send material back.

The Outer Planets

Now, my very favorite mission, Voyager!  Set, appropriately enough, to “Voyager”, by the Alan Parsons Project.

Animation of the Galileo mission’s highlights by YouTube user Unstung using Orbiter and Blender.  Some minor quibbles: Galileo released from Atlantis has no IUS booster and is fully deployed (except for the damaged antenna, which was not even attempted to deploy for several years after launch).  Otherwise, very beautiful, and the music is lovely.  It’s a moving tribute to the spacecraft.

Also by Unstung, Cassini’s mission highlights:

Cutting-edge 1980 animation of Pioneer 11 encountering Saturn:

NASA’s official Voyager 2 Saturn encounter video, created in 1981 and demonstrating the movements of the spacecraft and its scan platform as it makes its programmed observations of the ringed planet:

Voyager 2, Uranus flyby:

Voyager 2: Neptune and Triton:

New Horizons; starts with actual launch footage (man, I never get tired of that Atlas V peeling out of there; if it seems faster than any rocket you’ve seen, you’re not wrong — New Horizons achieved the fastest speed at spacecraft separation of any spacecraft, needed to get it to Pluto in time to study the atmosphere before it all freezes out for the long Pluto winter; it passed the moon just nine hours after launch, and will reach Pluto next year with just one gravity assist at Jupiter).


There are loads more awesome spacecraft animations out there, but this is probably enough for one night.  😉  Enjoy these, and I’ll post more another day!

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Celebrating 10 years of Martian cruising!

Ten years ago today, the Spirit rover landed on Mars, kicking off 10 consecutive years (and counting) of NASA rovers on Mars.  Spirit would go on to travel 4.3 miles in a mission that went way past the original nominal 90 sol* mission, finally perishing after becoming trapped in unstable soil in a poor position for outlasting the Martian winter.  Last contact was on Sol 2,623.  But Spirit wasn’t alone on Mars; its twin rover, Opportunity, landed January 25 and is still rolling today.  And, of course, the Curiosity rover has since arrived on Mars as well, and it is entirely plausible that there will be a continuous rover presence on Mars beyond even the Curiosity mission — if the luck holds out.  😉

So, here’s to ten continuous years of Martian cruising!



* 1 sol = 1 Martian day, or 1.03 Earth days

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