Huge Dust Storm on Mars Sidelines NASA's Opportunity Rover

Christopher Davidson
June 12, 2018

Critically, the dust raised the atmospheric opacity in Perseverance Valley, and Opportunity's power levels dropped significantly by Wednesday, 6 June, requiring the rover to shift to minimal operations.

The agency received transmission from the rover on Sunday morning, which it said was 'a positive sign despite the worsening dust storm'.

First detected by NASA on June 1, the storm has worsened over the weekend, the intense dust darkening the sky over Mars and leaving Opportunity in the dark.

The main concern NASA has with this kind of tempest is that the rover's batteries will get too cold and it won't be able to function once the dust storm ends.

That's bad news for the Opportunity rover, which uses solar power to charge its internal battery.

The Martian dust storm was first spotted from space by NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, NASA officials said. The 2007 storm produced a tau value of 5.5, while the current storm has already produced a tau of 10.8.

A dust storm larger than the continent of North America is now plaguing the Red Planet.

"We expect that even if the storm dissipates before becoming a global dust storm, that the amount of dust in Gale will increase over the next several days", Curiosity team member Scott Guzewich wrote in an update last week.

'Sunday's transmission was especially good news considering the dust storm has intensified in the past several days, ' NASA said.

Opportunity has been exploring Mars since 2004, but it runs on solar power.

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Opportunity was designed with weathering huge storms in mind. That storm, which covered the majority of the planet in 2007, also hampered its ability to gather vital sunlight and the rover was forced to remain in a low-power standby state around the clock.

Science operations for Opportunity are temporarily suspended while it waits out a Martian dust storm.

The 2007 storm reached a maximum of 5.5 tau.

In fact, Opportunity has been surviving for 15 years. During southern hemisphere (where Opportunity is) summer, sunlight warms dust particles, lifting them higher into the atmosphere and creating more wind.

The latest data transmission from Opportunity on Sunday morning showed the rover's temperature to be about -20°F (-29°C). It's critical to the rover's survival - NASA believes its rover Spirit failed after it could not harvest enough sunlight to power its survival heaters.

Engineers will closely monitor the rover's power levels throughout the week, the agency says. The rover needs to balance low levels of charge in its battery with sub-freezing temperatures.

The storm formed above the rover beginning on June 3 and has gotten much worse since then. Likewise, performing certain actions draws on battery power, but can actually expel energy and raise the rover's temperature.

The rover (and its twin Spirit) launched separately to Mars in 2003 and landed in January 2004 for what was originally scheduled to be a 90-day mission.

Opportunity has routinely beaten the odds during its tenure on Mars, has driven farther than any other vehicle on a world other than Earth, and is the longest surviving spacecraft to ever operate on the Martian surface.

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