Mars rover Opportunity knocked out as giant dust storm envelops planet

Pablo Tucker
June 16, 2018

That rover's electronic systems are thought to have frozen to death amid Mars' wintry weather.

"Not all Mars watchers are thrilled with the idea of a global dust storm, which can adversely affect ongoing missions", NASA noted in a January news release for the Reconnaissance Orbiter, which also described the precise loss-of-power scenario Opportunity now confronts.

Viking 1 images of the 1977 Mars dust storm.

In any case, Callas said the rover should be able to withstand the lowest expected temperatures without major damage. "We're concerned, but we're hopeful that the storm will clear and the rover will begin to communicate to us".

Last night Nasa detailed how a real example of such a enormous natural event left their solar-powered rover Opportunity uncontactable and in danger. The storm has been growing since the end of May with unprecedented speed.

That's where things currently stand, although John Callas of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory said "we're likely in a low-power fault right now", which implies that the rover will skip its next check-in.

Opportunity, along with its twin named Spirit, launched in 2003 and landed on Mars a year later to hunt for signs of past life.

Nonetheless, the mission team is still optimistic that the Opportunity will become operational again once the storm is over. The dust has caused a decrease in visibility, said Rich Zurek, chief scientist in the Mars Program Office at JPL, but has not otherwise affected rover operations as Curiosity is powered by a radioisotope thermoelectric generator (RTG) rather than solar panels. That means Opportunity's solar panels aren't getting enough sunlight to phone home from its Perseverance Valley location on Mars. Even in the worst of storms, only a layer of fine dust is left behind.

The main concern is dust could temporarily cover its optical instruments, managers said. If the clock also goes offline, then the rover won't know what time it is when it comes back on and could send back signals at any time.

When the storm was first detected, Opportunity's batteries were delivering 645 watt hours of energy as it explored a channel-like depression in the rim of a large crater. It jumped back into action after awakening from its deep self-protecting slumber.

There is a possibility that the rover might lose so much power that it can't maintain its internal clock, which would make recovery more hard, but still possible.

And there isn't any danger of the rover being buried by dust, although clearing it off once the storm subsides may be another challenge.

However, although winds can reach 113 kilometres per hour - almost hurricane force - the Martian atmosphere is so thin that while the wind can lift dust off the surface, it could not topple a spacecraft.

"The good news there is that the dust storm has warmed temperatures on Mars", Callas says.

Despite the lack of sunlight to generate power, Callas said he was optimistic that the rover, which has been operating for more than 14 years on the surface, would survive the storm. "It just doesn't get any better than that". By now, two weeks later, the dust storm is nearly completely blotting out the Sun!

Nasa has declared a "spaceship emergency" after losing contact with a Mars Rover caught in a big dust storm.

NASA says the solar-powered craft stopped responding on June 12, but all hope isn't lost.

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