YORK - NASA?s Phoenix Mars Lander weathered its first dust storm on the red
planet this past weekend, though the dust did lower the lander?s
solar power and put the brakes on some of its planned activities.
Phoenix project manager Barry Goldstein of
NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory told reporters about the weekend's events
during a lecture discussing the
mission at the Popular Mechanics Breakthrough Conference in here on
The nearly 23,000 square-mile
(37,000 square-km) storm moved west to east around the northern arctic
plains of Mars, and weakened considerably by the time it reached the lander on Saturday, Oct. 11. NASA's Mars Reconnaissance
Orbiter circling the planet took a snapshot
of the storm as it blew over Phoenix.
At the height of the storm, all the
dust it had kicked up increased the opacity of the atmosphere over the
spacecraft, letting less sunlight through to its solar arrays, the lander's sole source of power.
Phoenix's power levels "really dropped
drastically," Goldstein told SPACE.com.
The hit to the lander's
already diminishing power supplies limited what the spacecraft could do over
Phoenix landed on Mars on May 25 and has
spent more than four months studying the planet?s arctic plains. Ithas scoopedup samples of dirt
and subsurface water ice found at its landing site and analyzed them for signs
of the planet's past potential habitability.
The Phoenix mission team tracked the dust
storm last week through images gleaned from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter's
Mars Color Imager. The imager's research team estimated that after the dust
storm passed through Phoenix's
landing site on Saturday, the dust would gradually
decrease this week, which seems to be exactly what has happened.
Before the storm hit, Phoenix was generating
about 2,100 Watt-hours each sol, or Martian day, but that number dropped by
about a couple hundred Watt-hours during the height of the storm. As of
Wednesday morning though, power levels had rebounded back to about 2100
Watt-hours, Goldstein said.
It "was a major accomplishment
for us" considering the dip over the weekend, he added.
Phoenix is already generating less energy
each sol than it was earlier in the mission because the sun is dipping lower
and lower in the Martian sky as winter nears.
This storm may not be the last that
Phoenix experiences because local dust storm tend to pop up more during fall
and winter in the Martian arctic. (The storms are not the global monsters
experienced by the Mars Exploration Rovers, Goldstein said, but are smaller
regional dust storms.)
If other storms hit the lander, they'll further limit Phoenix's abilities to finish filling the
ovens in its Thermal and Evolved-Gas Analyzer, as well as other activities,
before it finally loses
The team was able to fill one oven
yesterday with a surface sample, Phoenix
principal investigator Peter Smith told SPACE.com. The team also intends
to go ahead with plans to attempt to turn on the lander's microphone.
- Dust Devils and Clouds on Mars
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Phoenix on Mars!