NASA’s Opportunity rover halted over Martian dust storm

  • NASA’s Opportunity rover halted over Martian dust storm

NASA’s Opportunity rover halted over Martian dust storm

A NASA rover on Mars has fallen silent as a enormous dust storm envelops the planet and blots out the sun.

Mars experiences regional dust storms annually, but only occasionally do they expand to engulf the entire planet.

NASA engineers attempted to contact the Opportunity rover today but did not hear back from the almost 15-year old rover. In that case, the computer is programmed to periodically check to see if the sun is up and if so, to phone home. Engadget provides a timeline: The storm was spotted June 1, the rover entered minimal operations mode by June 6, and on Sunday, in an encouraging sign, it beamed a message to Earth.

Dust storms on Mars start with sunlight. Space.com explains the fine line: Opportunity's handlers need to keep its heaters running at a level that will prevent it from freezing without draining the batteries.

"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. The storm has been growing since the end of May with unprecedented speed.

Once it passes, the storm may leave Opportunity's solar panels covered in a thick layer of dust, such that the rover won't be able to gather enough power to recover.

Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity has been delivering science from the surface of the Red Planet for over 14 years now - an incredible accomplishment for a robot that was only intended for an initial 90 day mission. In the coming weeks, engineers at the JPL will continue to monitor the rover's power levels and ensure that it maintains the proper balance to keep its batteries in working order. The solar-powered Opportunity has therefore temporarily ceased science operations. And if there's one thing Opportunity has proven, it is that it's capable of enduring!

A self-portrait of NASA's Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity, in 2014. "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".

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 rover touched down on the red planet with its twin Spirit in January 2004, and the robotic emissaries got to work right away in different parts of the world.

Full dust storms like this and the one that took place in 2007 are rare, but not surprising. Such storms last for weeks, sometimes months, but stop when the air temperatures equalize. They occur during summer in the southern hemisphere, when sunlight warms dust particles and lifts them higher into the atmosphere, creating more wind. "That wind kicks up yet more dust, creating a feedback loop that NASA scientists still seek to understand". In addition to Opportunity, the Mars rover Curiosity is monitoring dust levels from the storm.