As Massive Dust Storm Rages on Mars, Opportunity Rover Falls Silent

Rodiano Bonacci
Giugno 13, 2018

It arrived on Mars in 2004, and it was supposed to be operational for only 90 days.

When NASA last updated us on the Martian dust storm, it said it covered an area of more than 7 million square miles (18 million square kilometers) or roughly the size of the North American continent. Luckily, NASA has since made contact with the rover, which is encouraging sign.

This global map of Mars shows a growing dust storm as of June 6, 2018.

The exploration rover relies on light to run its solar panels, which charge its internal battery and generate power for its heaters.

Artist's conception of a Mars Exploration Rover, which included Opportunity and Spirit.

The rover is severely affected by the lack of sunlight, and the power levels have dropped, requiring the machine to enter minimal operations mode.

There is a risk that Opportunity will get too cold as it struggles to power its internal heaters, which protect its batteries from Mars' extreme cold.

Like the human body, the exploration rover can not function well under excessively hot or cold temperatures.

Simulated views of a darkening Martian sky blotting out the Sun from NASA’s Opportunity rover’s point of view
Simulated views of a darkening Martian sky blotting out the Sun from NASA’s Opportunity rover’s point of view

However, it said that the rover has already proved hardier than expected by lasting almost 15 years - despite being designed for a 90-day mission. It's also important to note that Opportunity has dealt with long-term storms before and emerged unscathed.

While the rover sent a transmission down to Earth on Sunday, the storm has intensified in recent days bringing "a dark, perpetual night over the rover's location", NASA said in a statement.

Whereas the previous storm had an opacity level (tau) of about 5.5, this new storm has an estimated tau of 10.8.

But data from the transmission on Sunday told engineers that the rover still has enough battery charge to communication with ground controllers at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

This series of images shows simulated views of a darkening Martian sky blotting out the sun from the Opportunity rover's point of view, with the right side simulating Opportunity's current view in the current dust storm.

Full dust storms like this and the one that took place in 2007 are rare, but not surprising. That wind kicks up yet more dust, creating a feedback loop that NASA scientists are still trying to understand. "They can crop up suddenly but last weeks, even months. The same swirling dust that blocks out sunlight also absorbs heat, raising the ambient temperature surrounding Opportunity". 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. NASA officials quickly notified the rover's operating team so they could begin contingency planning. At this rate, it could have many more years of life left in it!

Fingers crossed the storm subsides as soon as possible and the little rover that could once again emerges unscathed.

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