December 2, 2004

Martian Day Dreaming

Few images are more startling than seeing active weather from the surface of another planet. The evidence of clouds, sunset, and twisters raises the prospect of what a future Earth-like world might present to its first observer. The Mars case is an instance of seeing patterns in the clouds.

JPL -- Cloud watching has been one duty of NASA's Opportunity Mars Exploration Rover within the red planet's Meridiani Planum region. The robot is now wrapping up its exploration of "Burns Cliff" inside the stadium-sized Endurance Crater.

Like here on Earth, the planet Mars is subject to weather.

The Mars Exploration Rover's atmospheric science team is studying cloud observations to deduce seasonal and time-of-day behavior of the clouds. This helps them gain a better understanding of processes that control cloud formation.

On Earth, clouds like those imaged by Opportunity would be referred to as "cirrus" clouds that occur in a region of strong vertical shear. The cloud particles -- ice in this martian case -- fall out, and then are transported far from the location where they originally condensed, forming characteristic streamers.

The Opportunity Mars rover has encountered problems in its upslope climb to Burns Cliff. The robot's wheels have experienced slippage of up to 100 percent. Despite the tough driving conditions, the rover is showing no signs of slowing down despite its advanced age. Spacecraft health is excellent, and solar power is plentiful.

The plan is for Opportunity to leave Endurance Crater and then make a stop at discarded heat shield hardware that protected the robot during its January landing. Engineers want to study the entry equipment to obtain information how well it survived the heated plunge through Mars' atmosphere.

Rover drivers would like to steer the rover a long distance -- across a jumble of terrain types -- to Victoria Crater, a huge impact crater at Meridiani Planum.

Meanwhile, on the other side of Mars in the "Columbia Hills" of Gusev crater, NASA's Spirit rover remains in excellent health and has survived more than 300 martian days on the red planet.


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Mars Exploration Rovers, JPL