August 26, 2009

Stuck Mars rover struck by dust storm

NASA says its Mars rover Spirit, which has been stuck in loose martian sand since April, is losing power due to a dust storm that's blocking its solar panels.

The amount of electricity generated by the solar panels on Spirit has been declining for the past several Martian days, or sols, as a regional dust storm moved southward and blocked some of the sunshine at Spirit's location, the space agency said. The team operating the rover has responsively trimmed Spirit's daily activities and is keeping an eye on weather reports from observations by NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.

Spirit's solar panels generated 392 watt-hours during the mission's Sol 2006 (Aug. 24), down from 744 watt-hours five sols earlier, but still generous compared with the 240 watt-hours per sol that was typical before a series of panel-cleaning events about four months ago.

We expect that power will improve again as this storm passes, but we will continue to watch this vigilantly, said John Callas, project manager for Spirit and its twin, Opportunity.

Despite the power reduction, scientists at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory are still testing strategies for getting Spirit out of the patch of soft soil where it is trapped. The team wants to begin sending drive commands to Spirit next month.