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"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 world.

"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 amazing one."

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 watt-hours.

As reported by, 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 "Electric 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 electric field.

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 frames 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 paper "Dust mitigation for Mars solar arrays": "The environment of Mars is expected to be an ideal one for use of electrostatic dust-removal techniques."

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
Michael Goodspeed is a freelance journalist who lives in Beaverton, Oregon

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