NASA’s Curiosity Rover recently took a selfie at it continues to weather a massive dust storm that has enveloped a massive area of the Red Planet. The spunky rover’s latest self-portrait was taken on Sol 2028, almost six years into its mission.
Immediately noticeable in the image was the thickness of the dust surrounding Curiosity, officially known as the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL). As could be seen in the rover’s self-portrait, which was shared by Seán Doran, the whole background is covered by a thick haze, completely blocking out mountains in the distance. Despite being covered by Martian dust due to the storm, however, Curiosity remains fully operational, thanks to its Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator (RTG), which converts heat from plutonium into electricity, enabling it to work despite being devoid of sunlight.
Curiosity’s RTG is designed with a plutonium core that generates electricity with its heat. Curiosity’s RTG is capable of producing 120 watts, and based on rough estimates; it would take around 14 years of constant operation before the plutonium decays to such a point that it only produces 100 watts. Even then, Curiosity would still be able to function, making it likely that the power source will outlast the rover’s other components, such as its wheels.
The absence of sunlight has been a particular point of concern for another one of NASA’s Martian rovers — Opportunity — which was caught in the middle of the dust storm. Being solar-powered, Opportunity relies on solar panels to recharge its batteries. Due to the storm blocking out the sun, however, the 14-year veteran has lost contact with Earth, and in a recent press conference, NASA noted that the rover has probably entered low power fault mode, which shuts down all of its systems except its mission clock.
Curiosity, for its part, was fortunate enough to escape the center of the storm. Back on June 12, Curiosity took a photo suggesting that the massive dust storm was beginning to encroach in its area of operations, according to a Space.com report. During NASA’s recent press conference for Opportunity, the space agency noted that the storm had already covered 15.8 million square miles (41 million square kilometers), which equates to the size of North America and Russia combined.
Curiosity is currently operating in Mars’ Gale Crater; a 96-mile-wide (154 kilometers) area believed to have once been a vast Martian lake. Curiosity was deployed in the crater to study its geology, which contains both clays and sulfate minerals, which form in water under varying conditions and suggest that the Red Planet may have harbored conditions favorable for life in its distant past.
Curiosity was delivered to Mars beneath a hovering rocket-powered crane in August 2012 and began exploring Gale Crater soon after. While the rover began its mission studying the crater’s floor, Curiosity’s ultimate goal is is currently in the process of climbing Aeolis Mons (nicknamed Mount Sharp), a massive mountain rising 5.5 kilometers (18.000 ft) out of the crater’s center. Just like the walls of an Earthly canyon, Mount Sharp flank hosts layers of data-rich sediment that allow the rover’s science team to understand Mars more deeply than ever before.
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