After many weeks of frustrating inactivity, the Spirit and Opportunity rovers have begun to tentatively wake from a slumber imposed by Mission Control to conserve energy while a planet wide dust storm raged. The storm is now showing some signs of abating, Opportunity is receiving some 230-240 watt hours of energy, while Spirit is getting 313 watt-hours of energy per day and has already made a short 42 centimetre drive. Spirit is now expected to begin the drive to Home Plate, an interesting geological feature that geologists believe may be the remains of a volcano. Opportunity meanwhile is poised to begin the long delayed descent into Victoria crater, a move that may well signal the end for the plucky little robot, as it may well not be able to climb back out again. Spirit is suffering from a layer of dust on the lens of the camera mounted on the end of the rover’s robotic arm and various options are under discussion to try and shake it off. In order to avoid the same problem occurring with Opportunity, the mission controllers are delaying opening the dust cover for now. The solar panels on both rovers may also become impacted by dust, as it begins to settle as the storm dies down, but it is hoped that gusts of wind that have previously helped cleanse the cameras may come to the rescue again.
A consortium of Canadian universities is planning to send a lander to Mars in 2009. At just $20 million dollars, the mission is going to cost a fraction of the recently launched Phoenix mission. Though the Northern Light robot will weigh a petite 35 kilograms, far less than Phoenix, it is expected to carry a varied range of instruments, such as a spectrometer, seismic and environmental sensors, plus a rover named Beaver with a 1km range. The rover will also come equipped with a number of useful instruments, including a ground-penetrating radar and a rock grinder. The mission is not government sponsored, but hopes to raise the $20 million needed via private contributions and sponsorship. Costs will be kept low by using an off the shelf launch system, such as the Russian Rockot system, which is made from converted Soviet era ballistic missiles. More info can be found at the Northern Light website.
NASA has successfully launched the Mars Phoenix lander from Cape Canaveral, Florida, atop a Delta II rocket. It was a textbook lift-off, brilliantly lighting up the night sky. The launch was delayed from Friday because of bad weather, but the rescheduled launch in the early hours of the morning went smoothly. Unlike the Spirit and Opportunity missions presently on Mars, Phoenix is not mobile, but the lander carries with it a 2.4m (7.5ft) robotic arm that will dig into the Martian polar region surface in search of complex carbon-based chemicals (organics) in the soil that could provide tell-tale signs of life.