NASA Rover Falls Silent Amid Giant Mars Dust Storm

James Marshall
June 13, 2018

NASA's Opportunity rover is in jeopardy right now, as an vast dust storm now blankets its location on Mars, cutting off the rover's power supply and causing it to lose contact with Earth.

Opportunity is a plucky little robot that was only created to survive for 90 days on the surface of Mars but has kept on trundling for 15 years. The final frame, on the right, is a simulation based on the rover's data.

The dust storm was first spotted on May 30 by NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, and it has been growing ever since.

Back in 2007, a much larger storm covered the planet, which led to two weeks of minimal operations and no communications.

Losing the Sun has serious consequences for this solar powered robot.

NASA's Opportunity mission can rightly be called the rover that just wouldn't quit. On Tuesday, NASA's attempt to make contact with the rover failed, suggesting the battery level had finally dipped below 24 volts. NASA says the battery is likely so low that only a clock is still working, to wake the spacecraft for periodic power-level checks.

"Engineers will monitor the rover's power levels closely in the week to come", NASA officials said.

"If the rover's computer determines that its batteries don't have enough charge, it will again put itself back to sleep", NASA officials said. "It has blocked out so much sunlight, it has effectively turned day into night for Opportunity, which is located near the centre of the storm, inside Mars" Perseverance Valley'. "Its heaters are vitally important to keeping it alive, but also draw more power from the battery". However, since it made its landing on January 25th, 2004, it has remained in operation for 14 years, 4 months, and 18 days - exceeding its operating plan by a factor of 50!

The latest record Opportunity set?

That storm, which covered as much area as North America and Russian Federation combined as of today (June 12), has engulfed the golf-cart-size Opportunity rover, plunging its environs into perpetual darkness. Tau is a measure of the atmosphere's opacity - that is, its lack of transparency.

Opportunity has seen its share of dust storms on Mars. Both rovers vastly exceeded expectations and while Spirit, which got stuck in a sand dune, went off line in 2010, Opportunity continues to return valuable science.

Full dust storms like this and the one that took place in 2007 are rare, but not surprising. If enough dust covers the solar panels of the aging robot, Opportunity could be in danger, as scientists have said in the past. Mission managers are scheduled to discuss Opportunity's prospects during a teleconference at 1:30 p.m. ET (10:30 a.m. PT) Wednesday.

Other reports by Click Lancashire

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