NASA Mars rover weathers monster dust storm

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While the massive dust storm is blocking the sky, the sunlight reaching the NASA rover is gradually diminishing.

A NASA robot has detected more building blocks for life on Mars - the most complex organic matter yet - from 3.5 billion-year-old rocks on the surface of the Red Planet, scientists said on Thursday.

As the rover team prepared the contingency plan to deal with the situation, the storm grew more intense than expected.

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On Friday (8 June), Opportunity's operators suspended all scientific observations for the rover in a power conservation effort to allow Opportunity to use what power was available to it to maintain heater operation for its critical systems - maintaining temperatures for Opportunity's systems to combat the low temperatures on Mars.

Within days, the dust storm expanded to over 7 million square miles, which is an area that is bigger than North America. Air conditions are similar to "an extremely smoggy day", as a result, NASA says. The dust storm (not to be confused with a sandstorm) is raising atmospheric opacity, or "tau", blocking out light from the Sun, so it's much darker at the surface than usual.

By Wednesday June 6th, Opportunity was in minimal operations mode because of sharply decreasing power levels. The space agency even shut down its contact with Opportunity for two days to save on energy. It's not unlike running a auto in the winter so that the cold doesn't sap its battery charge. Despite this, both rovers have vastly exceeded expectations: they were only created to last 90 days each.

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The dust storm, meanwhile, is now not affecting the Curiosity rover, which was the subject of NASA's recent press conference.

That said, if such weather exists for long and the skies don't clear up in time, there could be a risk to the rover due to extreme cold on Mars - the phenomenon that led to the loss of Opportunity's twin back in 2010. The rover has been operated for more than 50 times longer than originally planned.

Major dust storms like the current one are not surprising, but they are infrequent and can crop up suddenly and last weeks, even months. During southern summer, sunlight warms dust particles, lifting them higher into the atmosphere and creating more wind. The fearless little rover is continuing to weather the storm; it sent a transmission back to Earth Sunday morning, which is a good sign. During the time, the rover stopped phoning in to NASA to save power, defying NASA scientists who had anxious if the rover would be able to power its vital survival heaters with the low power levels caused by that dust storm.

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