As Massive Storm Rages on Mars, Opportunity Rover Falls Silent

A Powerful Dust Storm Has Darkened the Skies Over Opportunity on Mars

A Powerful Dust Storm Has Darkened the Skies Over Opportunity on Mars

And while there's a chance the hardest-working rover on Mars won't make it through the storm, scientists are still hopeful. Without sunlight, the rover can not recharge its batteries, which it needs for operations.

"By no means are we out of the woods here", said John Callas, the Opportunity project manager at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. "So at this point, we're in a waiting mode, we're listening every day for possible signals from the rover". "This storm is threatening, and we don't know how long it will last, and we don't know what the environment will be like once it clears".

From the perspective of NASA's long-lived Opportunity rover on Mars, the sky is almost black in the middle of the day. The solar-powered rover has been in operation for almost 15 years - but if its batteries dip below 24 volts of electrical charge, it's programmed to put almost all its systems into sleep mode and wait until the batteries are sufficiently charged up. If the batteries are insufficiently charged, the computer will again enter a sleep mode, the same mode used each night to power down the rover. The solar-powered Opportunity has therefore temporarily ceased science operations.

The immediate threat is that the rover, without power, could succumb to Mars's harsh overnight cold.

The most recent transmission from Opportunity "showed the rover's temperature to be about minus 20 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 29 degrees Celsius)", NASA said in a status report.

During a teleconference on Wednesday, NASA researchers said they expect the storm to wrap around the entire planet within two or three days. Opportunity, however, has kept exploring well past its expected mission lifetime.

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In the meantime, the rover must endure freezing overnight temperatures, putting thermal stress on Opportunity's internal components. Both were scheduled to complete 90-day geology missions but were able to operate for years beyond that.

Spirit finally went silent on March 22, 2010, stuck in deep sand and unable to favorably orient itself so its solar arrays could face the low-altitude sun during the harsh martian winter. The storm is now about 10 billion acres in size, which is enough to cover North America and Russian Federation, or more than one-quarter of Mars. By now, two weeks later, the dust storm is nearly completely blotting out the Sun! "The same swirling dust that blocks out sunlight also absorbs heat, raising the ambient temperature surrounding Opportunity". That leaves the air in the upper atmosphere cooler than below, and an unstable mix emerges; as the warmer air rises, it carries dust into the skies. "They can crop up suddenly but last weeks, even months".

The storms' cyclical nature, however, are poorly understood.

The dust storm was first spotted on May 30 by NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, and it has been growing ever since. In addition to Opportunity, the Mars rover Curiosity is monitoring dust levels from the storm.

Once the storm clears, even if NASA engineers can re-establish contact with Opportunity, they may find another vexing problem: "We may have a lot of dust on this vehicle that we have to deal with", Callas said.

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