Giant Martian Dust Storm Threatens Opportunity Rover

Mindy Sparks
June 12, 2018

By Wednesday (June 6), Opportunity's power levels saw a major drop, forcing the rover to stop all science to conserve power.

NASA says it has received transmission from its Mars Opportunity Rover, which is now caught in a "worsening" dust storm that has rattled the machine and its systems.

Data from the Sunday morning transmission showed that Opportunity still had enough battery charge to communicate with ground controllers at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and Opportunity's team requested additional communications coverage from NASA's Deep Space Network, a global system of antennas that talks to all the agency's deep space probes. Opportunity, the much older rover that has been on Mars since early 2004, is still doing its thing, but an intense dust storm is making life hard for the aging robot.

The main concern here isn't the dust storm itself. Conducting research is pretty tough with dust and debris flying around, but being caught in the storm isn't just a bummer from a scientific standpoint; Opportunity's power comes from batteries linked to solar panels, and those solar panels don't work well when the skies aren't clear. The 2007 storm produced a tau value of 5.5, while the current storm has already produced a tau of 10.8.

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

This is a problem for the rover because unlike its younger cousin Curiosity, Opportunity is solar-powered.

In its lifetime, Opportunity has explored two craters on the red planet, Victoria and Endeavour, as well as found several signs of water.

During that event 11 years ago, the project's management prepared for the possibility that Opportunity would not be able to balance low levels of power with its energy-intensive survival heaters, which protect its batteries from Mars' extreme cold. But like the dust storm now battering Opportunity, the rover's mission ballooned from 3 months to 15 years, 14 of them on the Martian surface. During southern summer, sunlight warms dust particles, lifting them higher into the atmosphere and creating more wind. "That wind kicks up yet more dust, creating a feedback loop that NASA scientists still seek to understand".

The hope is that that won't be the case this time around, but storms are believed to have claimed Opportunity's twin rover, Spirit.

On Sunday, Opportunity phoned home, sending a transmission to engineers back on Earth.

It will be balancing low levels of battery charge and sub-freezing temperatures.

Heat is "vitally important" to keeping the spacecraft alive, but also consumes more battery power.

Engineers will closely monitor the rover's power levels throughout the week, the agency says. Likewise, performing certain actions draws on battery power, but can actually expel energy and raise the rover's temperature.

NASA touts the rover's durability in lasting almost 15 years in action despite being designed for a 90-day mission.

That's because Opportunity - like NASA's other Martian robots - relies on sunlight for power.

Other reports by Iphone Fresh

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