As Massive Storm Rages on Mars, Opportunity Rover Falls Silent

Mindy Sparks
June 13, 2018

A NASA rover on Mars has been knocked out by huge dust storm that envelops the planet and blots out the sun. First detected by NASA on June 1, the storm ballooned to more than 18 million and included the Opportunity's current location at Perseverance Valley in the Red Planet by June 8.

On Tuesday, NASA's attempt to make contact with the rover failed, suggesting the battery level had finally dipped below 24 volts. That clock is programmed to wake up the rover periodically and check its power levels to see if it can call home.

UPDATE: June 13, 2018, 2:05 p.m. EDT This story was updated to include more details on the storm and Opportunity from NASA.

Dust storms on Mars start with sunlight. Both rovers vastly exceeded expectations and while Spirit, which got stuck in a sand dune, went off line in 2010, Opportunity continues to return valuable science. Data from the transmission let engineers know the rover still has enough battery charge to communicate with ground controllers at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

"Our expectation at this point is that the rover has gone to sleep, it's in this low-power mode and it will remain in that low power mode until there's sufficient energy to charge the batteries back above a certain threshold", Callas said.

Opportunity - which has been exploring the Martian surface for about 15 years - charges itself through solar panels that feed its batteries. Over time the dust clouds grow to encompass entire regions, and those regional storms can combine to form globe-engulfing weather events. And if there's one thing Opportunity has proven, it is that it's capable of enduring!

With a design life of 90 days, Opportunity landed on Mars in January 2004, three weeks after a twin rover - Spirit - touched down on the other side of the red planet.

It's had its share of problems over the years - its flash memory no longer works, two instruments have failed and problems with its two front wheels have forced it to drive backwards most of the time - but the hardy robot has continued to collect valuable science, setting new records with every sol.

But surviving the current dust storm could prove a major challenge for the ageing robot.

While the insulating factor of the dust will likely keep Opportunity's instruments from suffering damage from the cold, there is one very serious ramification of this storm. They occur during summer in the southern hemisphere, when sunlight warms dust particles and lifts them higher into the atmosphere, creating more wind. Such storms last for weeks, sometimes months, but stop when the air temperatures equalize. That wind kicks up yet more dust, creating a feedback loop that NASA scientists are still trying to understand.

And while there's a chance the hardest-working rover on Mars won't make it through the storm, scientists are still hopeful.

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