Science

Mars rover hunkers down in midst of giant dust storm

Mars rover hunkers down in midst of giant dust storm

"Our expectation at this point is that the rover has gone to sleep in low energy mode", Callas says.

It weathered another storm in 2007, but that one wasn't this intense.

"Opportunity, located in a spot called Perseverance Valley, "has fallen asleep and is waiting out the storm", said John Callas, Opportunity project manager at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory".

It's not yet clear exactly how long the storm will last.

Artist's conception of a Mars Exploration Rover, which included Opportunity and Spirit. The rovers found evidence of past volcanic activity, water flows, and meteor impacts. But they kept checking in on a regular basis. Spirit wasn't declared dead until 2011, and Opportunity is still going strong; since August 2011, it has been exploring the rim of the 14-mile-wide (22 kilometers) Endeavour Crater.

NASA's Opportunity rover is in jeopardy right now, as an vast dust storm now blankets its location on Mars, cutting off the rover's power supply and causing it to lose contact with Earth.

Opportunity was in remarkably good health going into the storm, with only an arthritic joint in its robotic arm, Mr Callas said. But the mission team always had control of the rover, he added; the silence was a choice, an attempt to conserve power during the days of darkness. Without them, there's a chance that Opportunity could drop below the temperature at which critical components would fail. While the storm grows in size, and there are indications that it may eventually cover nearly the entire Martian world.

An animation showing the dust storm highlighted in an exaggerated red expanding to cover most of Mars
An animation showing the dust storm highlighted in an exaggerated red expanding to cover most

As we speak, NASA's Curiosity Rover, situated outside the large storm, on the other side of the planet, is keeping the engineer updated with as much information as possible regarding the storm. The storm is so bad that the dust covers the Sun and makes it hard to recharge the solar panels.

Up until June 11, according to MER team member Keri Bean, Opportunity was still beeping back at NASA, to let them know that it was doing fine, despite the dust.

Scientists think the power level in Opportunity's batteries is below 24 volts.

NASA says Opportunity's mission clock is programmed to wake the computer so it can check power levels and decide whether it can wake up again, or go back to sleep.

PALCA: We should know more in a few days. Opportunity can sit in the low-power mode "for an extended period of time", Callas said.

A massive dust storm has hit Mars, and NASA's Opportunity rover is right in the middle of it. Besides Curiosity and Opportunity on the surface, a whopping six orbiters circle the red planet, gathering data for NASA, the European Space Agency, Russia's Roscosmos, and the Indian Space Research Organization. "It just doesn't get any better than that".

Scientists remain unsure of whether or not Opportunity is working, especially as it has not radioed back to its earthly handlers since Sunday. This latest transmission also showed that the rover's temperature had reached about -29 °C (-20 °F). That's survivable for the rover, which was created to tolerate temperatures as low as minus 67 degrees F (minus 55 degrees C). Even after more than 14 years of operation, its batteries can hold 85 percent of the capacity they were designed for, Callas said. But this storm is much worse. As long as the rover stays warm enough, it can endure. "Doctors can tell you to give it time and that vital signs are good, but when it's your 96-year old grandmother in there it's different".