Giant Dust Storm on Mars Cuts Off Contact Between NASA and the Opportunity Rover

Wednesday, 13 June 2018 - 7:29PM
Space
Mars
NASA
Wednesday, 13 June 2018 - 7:29PM
Giant Dust Storm on Mars Cuts Off Contact Between NASA and the Opportunity Rover
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NASA/JPL-Caltech/TAMU
Over the past week, NASA's Opportunity rover has found itself in the middle of an encroaching Martian dust storm that's approximately the size of North America. 

While NASA has remained optimistic that the old rover will successfully make it out in one piece, since it's traversed the surface of Mars for over 5,000 days and survived harsh Martian weather before. But there's a few ways that a dust storm as large as this could shut down Opportunity for good, and NASA has just lost contact with the rover.

According to a new status update from NASA, they attempted to communicate with Opportunity earlier today but failed to receive a response back. With no way to touch base with the rover, NASA is now assuming that the dust storm has blotted out enough sunlight to starve the rover's solar panels, and its charge has dipped low enough that low power mode activated.




When Opportunity is in low power mode, everything save for its mission clock is shut off, and its computer will periodically check to see if there's enough charge to activate all the dormant systems. You can see in the image above how much the storm is shutting out any sunlight, and it may be some time before Opportunity can charge its batteries again.

The big concern is that Opportunity devotes a substantial chunk of its power to a heating system which protects its delicate circuitry. If it can't properly protect itself from the cold, the storm has a chance to take out the rover for good by freezing enough of its hardware.

It's thought that Opportunity's sister rover, Spirit, was permanently deactivated by a similar process (although it had been stuck in one spot for a year, which didn't help). Opportunity has weathered dust storms before during its 14 year mission, but there's a risk of this storm dealing lasting damage.




Right now, NASA can't do much more than monitor the storm using their Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and other tools and their disposal, and wait. During a news conference, Opportunity's project manager John Callas said: "So, at this point, we're in a waiting mode. We're listening every day for possible signals from the rover, and we'll be prepared to respond to that."

If Opportunity has survived the Martian storm, we'll know soon enough.

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