NASA Opportunity rover’s life in limbo as Mars dust storm rages on


You could say it’s an Opportunity to show what you’re made of little rover!Image credits NASA JPL-Caltech Cornell Univ./Arizona State Univ

Spirit operational life on Mars ended in 2010, but hopefully its twin will make it through the storm and keep on trucking for years to come. It now spans over 18 million square kilometers and includes Opportunity's current location at Perseverance Valley.

"Science operations for Opportunity are temporarily suspended while it waits out a Martian dust storm", the Mars rovers' account announced on Twitter. If the rover loses power for an extended amount of time, there is a chance it won't be able to power the heaters needed to keep its electronics alive. Here, NASA is helped out by how Opportunity is in an area that's moving into Martian summer, as well as the fact that dust storms tend to bring warmer surface temperatures with them. According to Bean, this is the highest "tau" value that has ever been recorded for a Mars dust storm! By now, two weeks later, the dust storm is nearly completely blotting out the Sun!

If you're into symbolism, it's stuck under the dust cloud in Perseverance Valley, so maybe there's some strength to be drawn from that.

In a new image, NASA shows how the massive storm is hampering Opportunity's solar panels.

They are now operating under the assumption that the charge in Opportunity's batteries has dipped below 24 volts and the rover has entered low power fault mode, a condition where all subsystems, except a mission clock, are turned off, NASA said.

The thick dust means Opportunity's solar panels aren't getting enough sunlight to contact its owners back on Earth.

"So, at this point, we're in a waiting mode", Callas said.

PALCA: We should know more in a few days.

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One complication, he said, is if the rover's power drops low enough that it can not operate an onboard clock. That would complicate, but not doom, recovery efforts, Callas said; Opportunity would still try to communicate after coming back online, but the timing of its attempts would be far less predictable.

"Not all Mars watchers are thrilled with the idea of a global dust storm, which can adversely affect ongoing missions", NASA noted in a January news release for the Reconnaissance Orbiter, which also described the precise loss-of-power scenario Opportunity now confronts.

There is ample reason to believe Opportunity will indeed wake up, NASA officials said.

Opportunity was in remarkably good health going into the storm, with only an arthritic joint in its robotic arm, Mr Callas said.

Scientists remain unsure of whether or not Opportunity is working, especially as it has not radioed back to its earthly handlers since Sunday.

At last word, the robot's temperature was down to minus-20 degrees Fahrenheit. That's survivable for the rover, which was created to tolerate temperatures as low as minus 67 degrees F (minus 55 degrees C). "Knowing and understanding how these storms behave ahead of more ambitious missions, it is essential that we learn to monitor and predict storms". The last such major storm occurred in 2007, which sent NASA's rovers into a "hunker down" mode for several weeks before the skies cleared.

Its investigations have identified plenty of evidence that Mars had ancient environments blessed with abundant liquid water - observations that have allowed scientists to build a better picture of the habitability potential of the planet.

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