NASA’s Opportunity rover halted over Martian dust storm

Federico Mansilla
Junio 14, 2018

This is not the first major dust storm weathered by Opportunity, which landed on the Red Planet in January 2004: An even larger storm forced the rover to stand down for two weeks in 2007. The storm is now about 10 billion acres in size, which is enough to cover North America and Russian Federation, or more than one-quarter of Mars.

Controllers expect it will be several more days before there is enough sunlight to recharge Opportunity's battery through its solar panels. NASA ceased Opportunity's science operations on June 4 as engineers prepared to secure the craft against the storm, Callas said.

"We're concerned, but we're hopeful that the storm will clear and that the rover will begin to communicate to us", John Callas, Opportunity project manager, said on a press call Wednesday.

Last night Nasa detailed how a real example of such a very big natural event left their solar-powered rover Opportunity uncontactable and in danger.

The Martian cold is believed to be what resulted in the loss of the Spirit rover in 2010, Opportunity's counterpart in the Mars Exploration Rover mission. That's because it may not be able power its electronic circuits enough to prevent severe cold on Mars from damaging them.

Spirit has not worked for several years. Much like Opportunity, Spirit's mission as only meant to last for 90 days, but the rover managed to remain in operation for 2269 days (2208 sols) from start to finish.

"Full dust storms like this one are not surprising, but are infrequent", according to a NASA statement.

NASA’s Opportunity rover halted over Martian dust storm
NASA’s Opportunity rover halted over Martian dust storm

Callas said the dust storm had essentially turned day into night for Opportunity as the opacity of the atmosphere, a measure of how effectively the dust is blocking out sunlight, climbed to record levels. Spacecraft orbiting Mars are too high to be affected.

There's no chance of Opportunity being buried or getting a wheel stuck in dust. The solar-powered Opportunity has therefore temporarily ceased science operations. That would put it in low power fault mode, where the only subsystem to operate is the mission clock, which is set to wake up the computer at certain intervals to recheck the power level.

People working with the rover have also become attached to it over the years, so even if things are looking okay, it's still a scary prospect that this rover is alone and unable to phone home on Mars. But Opportunity has never faced anything as formidable as the current dust storm on Mars. It jumped back into action after awakening from its deep self-protecting slumber. Two days later, as the storm intensified and spread, energy levels had dropped to 345 watt hours and the day after, to 133.

Scientists are eager to learn as much as they can about the dust storm to hone their weather forecasting skills.

The storm that's causing the problems was first noted at the end of May, when it showed up in images taken by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. The Martian atmosphere is so thin that while the wind can lift dust off the surface, it doesn't topple a spacecraft.

As of June 12, the tau value for Opportunity's dust storm was estimated at almost 11!

Both rovers were only created to function on Mars for about 90 days, but both outlived that estimate by leaps and bounds. "It just doesn't get any better than that".

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