Huge Dust Storm on Mars Sidelines NASA's Opportunity Rover

James Marshall
June 12, 2018

By Wednesday (June 6), Opportunity's power levels saw a major drop, forcing the rover to stop all science to conserve power.

NASA's Opportunity rover may not have to worry about running into traffic congestion on Mars, but vast dust storms are definitely an occupational hazard.

NASA has been forced to temporarily pause operations of its Opportunity rover as it continues to be rocked by an intense dust storm on Mars. A massive dust storm is sweeping across the landscape, blotting out the sun and leaving Opportunity stranded. The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter caught sight of the developing bad weather, and the orbiter team passed on a warning to the Opportunity team at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory at the California Institute of Technology.

NASA says the previous storm had an opacity level, or tau, above 5.5, while this new storm had an estimated tau of 10.8 as of Sunday morning.

A dust storm larger than the continent of North America is now plaguing the Red Planet.

These dust storms "are not surprising, but are infrequent" and can last up to "weeks, even months" according to NASA.

'Sunday's transmission was especially good news considering the dust storm has intensified in the past several days, ' NASA said. And it's seen dust storms bigger than the one it's experiencing now.

Opportunity was designed with weathering huge storms in mind. However, here the storm could actually help - the dust that blocks out the Sun's rays also absorbs heat, which raises the ambient temperature around the rover.

In its lifetime, Opportunity has explored two craters on the red planet, Victoria and Endeavour, as well as found several signs of water.

In fact, Opportunity has been surviving for 15 years.

"During southern summer, sunlight warms dust particles, lifting them higher into the atmosphere and creating more wind", the space agency says. There's much less light available to recharge the batteries this time, so the Opportunity team is hoping for a shorter storm.

On Sunday, Opportunity phoned home, sending a transmission to engineers back on Earth. It's critical to the rover's survival - NASA believes its rover Spirit failed after it could not harvest enough sunlight to power its survival heaters.

As with the 2007 dust storm event, there is a very real possibility that should a low-power fault program trip and Opportunity goes to sleep that the rover will not wake up again.

All the same, there are perils involved: the rover can't stay powered-down forever. The rover needs to balance low levels of charge in its battery with sub-freezing temperatures. Part of the equipment onboard is a survival heater system, which kick in to keep the batteries at a certain temperature rather than allowing them to get unduly cold.

NASA touts the rover's durability in lasting almost 15 years in action despite being designed for a 90-day mission.

Opportunity has routinely beaten the odds during its tenure on Mars, has driven farther than any other vehicle on a world other than Earth, and is the longest surviving spacecraft to ever operate on the Martian surface.

Other reports by Click Lancashire

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