"Unexplained" Forces Keep Mars Rovers Moving
It has been said that "In the country of the blind, the one-eyed man
is King." In the world of space science, if a collective blindness
has robbed investigators of their sight, it is their inability or
unwillingness to ever think or speak in electrical terms, even when
electrical events are impossible to deny -- or quite obvious to
those who work regularly with electricity.
Such is the case with NASA's investigation of the ongoing puzzle of
the Martian rovers. On Jan. 4, 2004, the rover Spirit landed on
Mars, followed three weeks later by Opportunity. The two robots were
given an expected lifespan of 90 days to gather as much scientific
data as possible. Four years later, both rovers are still going
strong, much to the astonishment of NASA and scientists around the
"We never thought we'd still be driving these robots all over Mars,"
said Mark Lemmon, a planetary scientist at Texas A&M University and
member of the rover science team. "We joked about driving
Opportunity into Victoria Crater, but now we're there, and we're
looking at doing even more science. Each day they still work is an
The rovers have provided continuous surprises since the outset. When
their missions began, their solar cells were providing 900
watt-hours of electricity per day. Over the months that followed
Spirit's output dropped to 400 watt-hours daily, while Opportunity
dropped to about 500 watt-hours. A primary reason for the drop was
the accumulation of dust on the panels. But then, to the amazement
of mission scientists, Opportunity's power began to INCREASE, and
kept on increasing until the power peaked at just over 900
As reported by
Newscientist.com, the Mars rover Opportunity "stumbled into
something akin to a carwash," which somehow 'cleaned' its solar
panels. Jim Erickson of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory admitted
that the cause of this surprise 'cleaning' could not be explained.
'These exciting and unexplained cleaning events have kept
Opportunity in really great shape,' Erickson said."
The remarkable cleaning occurred in spurts during the Martian night.
The team managing the rover reported that on at least four occasions
over a six-month period, the rover's power output suddenly increased
by up to 5% in a single night. Some suggested that the Martian winds
might have swept the dust off the panels. Others wondered if frost
could have caused the dust to clump, exposing more of the panels.
And some even suggested that the tilting of the rover while climbing
hills might have caused a portion of the dust to drop off. Such
"explanations" only add to the exasperation of those who understand
very well what has occurred. Does dust fall off the top of your car
when you drive uphill? Does the speed of your car on the highway
clean the dust off? Is your car cleaner after a windy day?
While the rovers' cleanings and endurance is unexplained by NASA, a
clue to the puzzle is provided by the agency's own news release
dated July 14, 2005: "When humans visit Mars, they'll have to watch
out for towering electrified dust devils." With these words, NASA
gave official sanction to an idea that had already been percolating
from separately funded research projects in recent years. This
research has explored the electrical component to dust devils in the
Arizona desert -- investigators were surprised to find that these
vortices are electrically charged. According to the recent news item
Sand Findings Could Lead to Better Climate Models," one
investigator speculates that "electric fields get so large on the
Red Planet they produce ground-level sparks."
But since it is verboten within official science to speak of planets
as charged bodies, the investigators can only envision the electric
fields associated with dust devils as an effect of particles
bouncing and rubbing against each other -- ignoring the larger
electrical condition required to generate the vortex in the first
place. NASA suggests, "Dust devils get their charge from grains of
sand and dust rubbing together in the whirlwind. When certain pairs
of unlike materials rub together, one material gives up some of its
electrons (negative charges) to the other material. Smaller dust
particles tend to charge negative, taking away electrons from the
larger sand grains." In this view, the rising central column of hot
air that powers the dust devil carries the negatively charged dust
upward and leaves the heavier positively charged sand swirling near
the base. In this way, the charges get separated, creating an
But according to Wallace Thornhill, the leading proponent of the
Electric Universe, a mere internally generated electric field will
quickly PREVENT further charge separation. Upward movement of air
may indeed trigger electric discharge. But localized charge
separation would not be the primary cause of the discharge. The
cause will be the movement of atmosphere between layers of different
charge, triggering electrical breakdown.
On Earth the vertical electric field at sea level on a dry day is
approximately 100 volts per meter. Orthodox models of the Earth and
its atmosphere offer no realistic explanation for this field.
Thornhill notes that at Mars' distance from the Sun, the lack of
energy from the Sun, in combination with the extremely rarified
atmosphere of the small planet, makes it inconceivable that
atmospheric movement generated by mild warming could possibly
produce the required charge for Everest-sized "dust devils" on Mars.
The atmospheric pressure on Mars is only 1 percent that of Earth at
sea level, and regional dust storms on Mars only serve to reduce
solar heating at the surface. Martian dust devils are thus the
witnesses to a global electric field. In fact,
dust devils on Mars often occur in massive congregations at the
leading edge of storms -- proof positive that they form without any
benefit at all from larger regions of circulating air. They are
electrical vortices, a phenomenon easily produced in the laboratory
without any prior mechanical circulation of air at all.
A good indicator of electrical discharge from ground to air within a
Martian dust devil can be seen in the
of a movie taken by the rover Spirit as the vortex spun across
Gusev Crater just before noon on March 15, 2005. The luminosity of
the apparent discharge activity at the base is compelling and
confirms the earlier claim of Electric Universe advocates that the
dark tracks left by the tornado-like whirlwinds on Mars are due to
electric discharge either scorching the surface, or removing lighter
colored surface material.
But regardless of what causes the electric fields associated with
Martian "dust devils" and dust storms, NASA still seems unwilling to
consider their relevance to the rovers anomalies. From the
electrical perspective, the robots' seemingly unfathomable endurance
is easily explained as an effect of repeated electrostatic
cleanings. On Mars, because of the atmosphere's thinness, dust
particles charge more easily and will thus stick more "stubbornly"
to a surface. Thus, the notion of repeated cleanings absent the
electric force becomes all the more preposterous.
Ironically, a number of researchers have posited that the best
cleaning method for removal of dust from power-systems on Mars will
involve electrostatic applications. At the 2002 Photovoltaic
Specialists Conference, G.A. Landis and P.P Jenkins stated in their
mitigation for Mars solar arrays": "The environment of Mars is
expected to be an ideal one for use of electrostatic dust-removal
This is yet another instance where those with a real-world
understanding of electricity are better equipped to interpret space
discoveries than NASA scientists. Perhaps sooner than later, NASA
officials will begrudgingly acknowledge the meaning in all of this.
Until then, the "unexplained" cleanings of the rovers will remain
one of many events in the solar system over which NASA investigators
are still scratching their heads.
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Michael Goodspeed is a freelance journalist who lives in Beaverton, Oregon
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