NASA sends “The Weather Rock” to Mars

When I made a post discussing the weather station on NASA’s Phoenix Mars Lander titled “First Weather Station on the Surface of Mars“, I expressed some concern that there might be something wrong with the meteorological package due to the first photo of the MET mast showing something dangling:

And I jokingly wrote: “Given that this mission was put together on a low budget, using parts previously designed for other spacecraft, it makes me wonder if the weather station we see above isn’t simply this low tech device“.

After further research, I’m forced to conclude that in fact, NASA did send a “weather rock” to Mars as part of the meteorological package!

Yes I know, you still don’t believe me, so here are the technical details. The instrument is called the “Telltale Project” and it was developed by the Mars Simulation Laboratory at the University of Aarhus in Demark.

In their project page about the instrument they write:

The Telltale is a passive wind indicator for the 2007 NASA Phoenix lander developed and constructed at the Mars Simulation Laboratory at the Aarhus University.

The Telltale consists of a gallows that is mounted on the top of the Meteorological Mast of the Lander. The active element of the instrument is an extremely lightweight Kapton tube hanging in Kevlar fibres. Images taken of the instrument will show the deflection of the Telltale due to the wind. A mirror is mounted below the active part to enable better direction information. Full resolution JPG (24 kB)


Click for a larger image.
Part of the Phoenix lander showing the Telltale on top of the Meteorological Mast ©NASA/JPL

So there you have it, what originally looked like a possible malfunction in the first photo of the first weather station on Mars turned out to be an accurate representation of the instrument, an instrument not unlike that of the “weather rock” found as a novelty item all over the world. Truth is indeed stranger than fiction.

In other news, I’m told that inside the MET package box, NASA has included several of these, monitored by a tiny camera, to assist in weather forecasting of seasons on Mars. ;-)

UPDATE: The first day’s weather report from Phoenix Lander on Mars is now available, see below:

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44 thoughts on “NASA sends “The Weather Rock” to Mars

  1. Now you will set off the debate over whether the brown band length indicates a cold or warm winter forecast. ;-)

  2. That is too funny! Thanks for putting a smile on my rainy Seattle morning.
    It is however not such a ridiculous idea. Think about it. A “weather rock”, I had never heard of one until this morning, is an “OBVIOUS” weather indicator. That is exactly what one needs when using minimal equipment and limited computing resources to accomplish a task. After all a regular spinning wind indicator would probably wear out in short order. This thing could read “weather” for years. From a software programmer point of view this is actually ingenious. I can imagine the meeting where this was first discussed, the person(s) must have laughed themself silly.

  3. wonder if they have microsite problems and if James Hansen will insist on ‘adjusting’ the temp data?

  4. Phoenix uses some of the most sophisticated and advanced technology ever sent to Mars. A robust robotic arm…digs through the soil to the water ice layer underneath, and delivers soil and ice samples to the mission’s experiments.

    Hmm…that “arm” looks familiar. Could it be?

  5. The Phoenix program is led by the Univ of Ariz, Tuscon. Take from that what you will, I suppose.

  6. I’m wondering what broad, sweeping conclusions will be drawn about the Martian climate based on a single measuring station that will only be operational for a few months before the Martian winter freezes it to death.

  7. All jokes aside, as a retired engineer I have to take my hat off to them. Launching a probe from Earth and making a perfect touchdown on Mars is an astounding feat. My congratulations to the scientists, engineers, and technicians who made it happen.

    REPLY: Well said. I don’t wish to take anything away from that fantastic accomplishment, but this was just too curious to pass up. -Anthony

  8. Maybe NASA learned something from the Russians. While NASA spent megatons of money developing a pen that would write in zero gravity, the Russians used a pencil. Maybe the high-tech rock is a logical extension?

  9. Actually that “rock” is a rather sophisticated piece of equipment. It is extremely light and uses a mirror to amplify movement. Measuring winds in an atmosphere that is less than 1% as dense as Earths isn’t easy.

    Incidentally here is the weather report for sol 1:

    REPLY: Thanks for the tip, included in post now. -Anthony

  10. Aviator:
    That is an urban legend (though a popular one). NASA did not fund the development of the pressurized space pen. The Fisher company developed it independently with their own money and sold it to both NASA and the Russians. Pencils are not ideal in space for several reasons (bits of broken lead floating into instruments, flammable in a high-oxygen environment, etc).

  11. D. Quist (07:04:45) :

    “After all a regular spinning wind indicator would probably wear out in short order.”

    My guess for the weather rock is that the thin atmosphere would have trouble with the friction of a cup anemometer and that high wind and dust on Mars could cause trouble. A good anemometer on Earth is a hot wire system where electricity is used to heat a platinum wire while the wind tries to cool it off. The resistance of the wire maps to temperature nicely. It has the advantage of no moving parts, but doesn’t tell wind direction.

    Lifetime isn’t much of an issue. Unlike the over-achieving Spirit and Opportunity rovers, Phoenix will freeze by winter and not rise from the ashes. BTW, those rovers have had problems with dust on their solar collectors, but a passing dust devil has cleaned off a panel at least once. Dust on Spirit currently blocks about 2/3 of the the sunlight on its panel.

    http://marsrovers.jpl.nasa.gov/spotlight/20080420_Spirit.html

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  13. I thought Mars had intense winds…

    REPLY: It sometimes does, but the pressure at Mars surface is really low; 8 millibars as compared to standard sea level pressure of 1017.2 millibars here on earth. So the force applied to a wind instrument is much lower even thoiugh the velocity might be much higher. – Anthony

  14. NOW I know why they are trying to find life on Mars! They need to sell those carbon credits somewhere cuz we ain’t buyin it down here!

  15. I have heard that the Atmospheric CO2 level in Mars is 95,6%. How come it is so cold there then? On the earth it is 0,04% and the temperatures are said to be rising. So if CO2 rules the climate, why is it so cold at mars?

    REPLY: The gas volume and resulting pressure of the Martian atmosphere is much lower, about 8 millibars compared to Earth’s normal atmosphereic pressure of 1017 millibars. So even though the percentage of CO2 is much higher, there is far less of it. – Anthony

  16. saskboy (17:46:49) :

    “I wonder if a “dust gauge” would be practical, since a “rain gauge” is pretty much useless.”

    They do, of sorts. There’s probably an optical target for color and focus checks that picks up dust and can be used for measuring that though it does “muddy” the original use. The solar panels make a great dust gauge with power output being largely a function of sun angle, distance, age, and dust. The first two are precisely known, the aging effects are well understood, and that leaves dust being directly measured.

    The optics on Phoenix include a microscope, I wouldn’t be surprised if they use it to image dust grains that settle on the lander. NASA has some good documents describing the mission, I haven’t had a chance to read them closely.

  17. I cheered on Sunday night when the probe landed safely. Thanks for posting this. I hope to live long enough to see people walking on Mars.

    I’m such a geek.

  18. All I could think about was OMG WTF LOL
    That’s the best thing NASA’s got?
    A weather rock?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?

    Seriously, with all the progress in science, a weather rock?

  19. OMG :::gigglefits:::

    Nasa sent a Weather Rock to Mars!

    Too funny.

    Remind me why we pay these guys the big bucks?

    Weather Rock on Earth – Prices range from free -> $9.99

    Nasa Weather Rock – $11.26 million

    The laugh you get when realizing Nasa just put a weather rock on mars – Priceless

    I wonder if anyone ever told them it was a joke?

    Namaste,
    Lina

  20. 19thkiller/pohlse/alinaphoenix:

    Perhaps you might want to explain to NASA how to make a better wind measurement device. But remember it must:

    1. be simple
    2. be very light
    3. work below -100 degrees centigrade
    4. require no electrical power
    5. require no lubrication
    6. work at an atmospheric pressure of 8 mb
    7. be insensitive to dust
    8. survive >9 g and extreme vibration levels
    9. survive about a year in vacuum
    10. work for at least 6 months without maintenance or calibration

    Lots of luck, guys!

    REPLY: I think the big distinction here is the realization now that the “Telltale” wasn’t intended for a meteorological instrument as its primary function. The primary function was to enable the camera to snap a photo, so they could see the wind across the lander, so that they’d know if the robotic arm might likely have soil blown out of the scoop or not while the soil payload was enroute to the inlet chute. If the soil got blown onto the top of the lander, it could clog/disrupt some of it’s systems.

  21. saskboy/Ric Werme:

    There is another form of “dust gauge” that has been used by the MER rovers. They photograph the Sun every day, and by measuring the brightness of the solar disc one gets a direct measurement of the optical depth (tau) of the atmosphere and thereby of the amount of dust in it. This is a very important parameter in Martian meteorology which has a strong effect on both thw temperature and the height(!) of the atmosphere.

  22. Beyond the weather rock, Phoenix does have a Canadian weather station. A little pricey at $37,000,000, but if a mass market ever develops the price will come down dramatically. I wonder if it came with a 90 day warranty?

    http://canadianpress.google.com/article/ALeqM5hRLbX9aY2zFmsynoKE3AJijefD2w

    The daily weather reports will include temperature, atmospheric pressure, cloud height, humidity and wind speeds.

    “We have a mast that sticks up from the deck of the station and it measures temperatures at three spots on the mast so we can characterize the climate on the surface,” Whiteway said in an interview.

    Macdonald, Dettwiler and Associates, the company better known as MDA, is the prime contractor for the weather station, in partnership with Optech International of Vaughan, Ont.

    A specially developed Canadian laser instrument known as a “lidar” will be used to track clouds around the landing area.

    “We’ll take measurements of clouds and determine how much ice water is actually held within the clouds,” Whiteway said.

    “One of the questions for understanding water on Mars is the role that clouds play and that’s the one we will address.”

    Hey, at least they appreciate clouds. That’s more than I can say about some climatologists!

  23. Once again, the plasma stream hitting all planets in our solar system appears to be ignored, not only on Mars, but here on Earth. I am shocked by how many cosmic ray instruments are no longer active. See:

    http://spidr.ngdc.noaa.gov/spidr/index.jsp

    If cosmic rays (referred to as plasma, which are in simple terms atom particles and pieces) have been shown to be somehow involved in cloud formation, it would seem logical to actively and continuously measure these particles. Now would be the time and place to do exactly that, given that our magnetic field is down.

    Maybe meteorologists and climatologists just aren’t interested in chemistry.

  24. Great weather update from Mars and the Phoenix weather station, Anthony. Going to be difficult to survey, though.

    8.5 millibars! And Venus at 95 bar. This really is prime realestate, I’m sure we’d all agree, for a blessed moment in reflection. Ah, well, glad thats over.

  25. It appears that many other planets have undergone recent climate change. We know that Mars has experienced a change as shown by its icecaps. Jupiter has also undergone a recent change (believed to be warmer at the equator, colder at the poles). Most theorists have separate explanations for each one, given that each one has its own set of gas cloud chemicals, wind, gravity, etc, in the environment. However, given that very set up, what are the odds that each and everyone has gotten warmer in concert with one another in the last few decades? If they also get colder in the next couple (or more?) decades, it would seem the odds would stack against coincidence and be more in favor of a single source for all planets.

  26. Pamela Gray wrote “what are the odds that each and everyone [planet] has gotten warmer in concert with one another in the last few decades?”

    Answer: There is nothing to explain. The all-planets correlation is a myth. We have very little knowledge of the global temperatures of any planets, moons, and other solar system bodies even in the short term, let alone the years that would be required to establish such a correlation. For those we know something about, not all are warming. The “all of Jupiter is warming” myth started from the news that some local areas of Jupiter were warming, resulting in or caused by local storms. Ignored by the mythmakers was the fact that other local areas of Jupiter were cooling. News of Triton warming was selectively repeated by omitting the attendant fact that Triton (with Neptune) was in an unusually intense Summer. Summer lasts a long time there, because Triton (with Neptune) takes 165 Earth years to go around the Sun. So we have to wait a really long time to see if Triton is warming overall–averaged across seasons.

    Links to sources, and more details, can be found here, among other places: http://www.badastronomy.com/bablog/2007/04/29/is-global-warming-solar-induced/

  27. Clarification of my previous post: The reason Summer on Triton is unusually intense recently, is that Triton lies somewhat on its side. At one point in Neptune’s orbit around the Sun, Triton’s south pole points almost directly at the Sun and therefore its ice evaporates a lot, which reduces the pole’s reflectance of sunlight, which causes the land to absorb more sunlight, and increases the atmospheric retention of heat, all of which increases the land and atmospheric temperature for the whole globe. At the opposite point in Neptune’s 165-year orbit around the Sun, Triton’s north pole goes through the same thing so the whole globe warms again. In between those two points in Neptune’s orbit, both of Triton’s poles point perpendicular to the Sun, so the polar ice caps are fairly protected, so they accumulate more ice, reflect more sunlight, the atmosphere thins, and the globe cools.

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