Dust delays Martian rover

For 9 months, the Mars rover Opportunity has inched along the perimeter of an 800-meter-wide crater called Victoria, while NASA scientists debated where—and whether—the robot should attempt a descent into the 70-m-deep hole. Although the downhill journey is risky, the payoff is great: The farther the rover travels, the older the rock it can study in the crater’s walls and the more insights it can gain into the Red Planet’s apparently wet ancient past. Last month, NASA announced that Opportunity would begin crawling down the crater at a place called Duck Bay, which features several gentle slopes.

But now the rover is waiting for the dust to clear. In late June, a giant dust storm began brewing on Mars, reducing the sunlight that powers both Opportunity and its sister rover, Spirit. The amount of dust in the atmosphere at Spirit’s location, Gusev crater on the opposite side of the planet, remains lower than at Victoria crater. Opportunity won’t embark on its descent until July 13 at the earliest, says rover scientist Steve Squyres of Cornell University.

Researchers are using images from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter to monitor the storm and plan rover operations. Both rovers have been operating on Mars since January 2004, far exceeding their expected 3-month lifetimes.

More Stories from Science News on Planetary Science