Published: Thu, June 14, 2018
Science | By Joan Schultz

NASA's Opportunity rover falls silent

NASA's Opportunity rover falls silent

NASA's Opportunity rover on Mars did not return a call from Earth Tuesday (June 12) while enduring a massive dust storm that scientists have called "one of the most intense ever observed".

The storm covers an area as large as North America and Russian Federation combined - a quarter of the surface of Mars - and has left the golf-cart-sized rover temporarily unable to conduct science operations.

Controllers expect it will be several more days before there's enough sunlight to recharge Opportunity's battery through its solar panels.

Artist's conception of a Mars Exploration Rover, which included Opportunity and Spirit.

"We're concerned, but we're hopeful that the storm will clear and that the rover will begin to communicate to us", John Callas, Opportunity project manager, said on a press call Wednesday.

NASA engineers attempted to contact the Opportunity rover today but did not hear back from the almost 15-year old rover. The storm has been growing since the end of May with unprecedented speed.

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

Opportunity (and Spirit) landed on the Red Planet in January 2004.

NASA's Opportunity rover falls silent
NASA's Opportunity rover falls silent

It's had its share of problems over the years - its flash memory no longer works, two instruments have failed and problems with its two front wheels have forced it to drive backwards most of the time - but the hardy robot has continued to collect valuable science, setting new records with every sol.

Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity has been delivering science from the surface of the Red Planet for over 14 years now - an awesome accomplishment for a robot that was only intended for an initial 90 day mission. But beyond merely limiting the rover's operations, a prolonged dust storm also means that the rover might not be able to keep its energy-intensive survival heaters running - which protect its batteries from the extreme cold of Mars' atmosphere.

The storm has blocked out so much sunlight that it has effectively turned day into night for Opportunity, which is located near the centre of the storm, inside Mars' Perseverance Valley. Richard Zurek of the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter team described it as just days away from engulfing the entire planet, something that's only been seen a dozen times, and not since 2007.

At this point, NASA engineers put the rover in a low-power mode and ordered it not to check in until 48 hours had passed.

People working with the rover have also become attached to it over the years, so even if things are looking okay, it's still a scary prospect that this rover is alone and unable to phone home on Mars.

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. It jumped back into action after awakening from its deep self-protecting slumber. On the plus side, Martian summertime is approaching and that should keep temperatures up at night and prevent the batteries and other parts from freezing. Callas said the rover is equipped with eight one-watt plutonium heat sources and simulations indicate it should be able to withstand the lowest expected temperatures without major damage.

Scientists are eager to learn as much as they can about the dust storm to hone their weather forecasting skills. The map was produced by the Mars Color Imager (MARCI) camera on NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter spacecraft. The Martian atmosphere is so thin that while the wind can lift dust off the surface, it doesn't topple a spacecraft.

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