LOST OPPORTUNITY: NASA's Opportunity rover MIA after dust storm hits Mars

Christopher Davidson
June 13, 2018

Luckily, NASA has since made contact with the rover, which is encouraging sign.

NASA's Opportunity rover's science operations have been temporarily suspended as it waits out a growing dust storm on Mars, the United States space agency said in a statement. The storm is now about 10 billion acres in size, which is enough to cover North America and Russian Federation, or more than one-quarter of Mars.

The opacity of the storm, an indication of how effectively it is blocking out sunlight, is at record levels for Opportunity, making it hard for the rover's solar arrays to fully charge its batteries. The same swirling dust that blocks out sunlight also absorbs heat, raising the ambient temperature surrounding Opportunity'. The solar-powered rover has been in operation for almost 15 years - but if its batteries dip below 24 volts of electrical charge, it's programmed to put almost all its systems into sleep mode and wait until the batteries are sufficiently charged up.

The image above shows progressive views from Opportunity's mastcam, as the dust storm intensified since it was first spotted on May 30, 2018. But Opportunity has proven to be plucky: Designed for a 90-day mission, it's set to enter year 15 of operation next month. It's also important to note that Opportunity has dealt with long-term storms before and emerged unscathed.

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In 2007, a planetwide dust storm blotted out the sun for two weeks. The storm's atmospheric opacity is now much worse than a 2007 storm that Opportunity weathered. As of Sunday, this storm's level was estimated at a much more severe 10.8. This latest transmission also showed that the rover's temperature had reached about -29 °C (-20 °F).

Right now, the vast plain Opportunity is exploring - Meridiani Planum - is blanketed in the most intense dust storm that NASA scientists have ever witnessed. As soil gets warmed up, updrafts form in the thin Martian air and create dust devils, which suck fine dust high into the atmosphere. "One saving grace of dust storms is that they can actually limit the extreme temperature swings experienced on the Martian surface". That would put it in low power fault mode, where the only subsystem to operate is the mission clock, which is set to wake up the computer at certain intervals to recheck the power level.

In the meantime, Opportunity's science operations remain suspended and the Opportunity team has requested additional communications coverage from NASA's Deep Space Network - the global system of antennas that communicates with all of the agency's deep space missions.

Fingers crossed the storm subsides as soon as possible and the little rover that could once again emerges unscathed.

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