Will NASA's Opportunity rover survive the huge dust storm on Mars?


On Wednesday, NASA held a press conference to describe what was going on and explain why its scientists and engineers are optimistic that we'll hear more from the rover once the storm clears up.

A massive dust storm raging across Mars has overcome NASA's aging Opportunity rover, putting the unmanned, solar-powered vehicle into sleep mode and raising concerns about its survival, the U.S. space agency said Wednesday. By June 4, the storm was blocking out a significant part of the sunlight that powers the rover, causing NASA to reconfigure it for low-powered operations. The fear now is that it will run so low on battery charge that it will have to disable its master clock, and it may grow too cold without proper heating, and it may never recover if the dust storm dumps debris all over its vital solar panels.

Dust storms aren't unusual on Mars, and researchers were ready with a temporary solution - Opportunity rover can be put into a low-power mode.

Scientists aren't almost as concerned about the newer, nuclear-powered Curiosity rover on the other side of Mars, which is already seeing darkening skies. Two days later, as the storm intensified and spread, energy levels had dropped to 345 watt hours and the day after, to 133.

Viking 1 images of the 1977 Mars dust storm.

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In an update published on YouTube, NASA stated that Opportunity did not respond to a direct attempt at contact.

The mission clock will trigger the computer to turn back on to check power levels sporadically, NASA said.

This reading is about twice as dense as any other storm that Opportunity has endured since landing on Mars in 2004.

In the meantime, the rover must endure freezing overnight temperatures, putting thermal stress on Opportunity's internal components. In the coming weeks, engineers at the JPL will continue to monitor the rover's power levels and ensure that it maintains the proper balance to keep its batteries in working order.

In 2007, a massive dust storm kept Opportunity silent for a few days.

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"We think we can ride this out for a while", Callas said. "When the skies clear and the rover begins to power up, it should begin to communicate with us".

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.

"It's like you have a loved one in a coma in the hospital, the doctors are telling you you've just got to give it time and she'll wake up". Originally, this robotic rover was only meant to operate on Mars for 90 Martian days (or sols), which works out to a little over 90 Earth days.

Launched from Cape Canaveral on July 7, 2003, Opportunity landed on the red planet five-and-a-half months later, on January 24, 2004, three weeks after a twin rover, Spirit, bounced to an airbag-cushioned landing on the other side of the planet. However, the dust should warm the atmosphere and keep the rover above its minimum operating temperature. Such storms last for weeks, sometimes months, but stop when the air temperatures equalize.

Scientists said the swirling dust has created an extreme smog that blots out sunlight.

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