Huge Dust Storm on Mars Sidelines NASA's Opportunity Rover
12 June, 2018, 11:06
Opportunity reported a significant drop in battery charge last Wednesday, so NASA suspended science operations and placed the rover in low power mode. The probe sent a hello message to NASA engineers yesterday morning - an encouraging sign given the storm's increasing intensity.
The swirling dust is impacting Opportunity's solar panels, which it uses to recharge its batteries and power the heaters that allow the rover to function in the extreme cold conditions of Mars.
"The storm's atmospheric opacity - the veil of dust blowing around, which can blot out sunlight - is now much worse than a 2007 storm that Opportunity weathered", NASA said.
The main concern here isn't the dust storm itself.
It was during that 2007 storm that Opportunity's handlers anxious about the rover's ability to power its vital survival heaters with the low power levels caused by that dust storm.
This storm is bad, but Opportunity is made of hardy stuff.
As of June 10, the storm had almost doubled the level of atmospheric opacity, or darkness, experienced by the rover in 2007, measured in tau.
It survived a bad dust storm in 2007 and is now being closely watched to see if it can survive a massive storm that has an estimated opacity level of 10.8, a sharp increase from the earlier storm's 5.5 tau.
Major dust storms like the current one are not surprising, but they are infrequent and can crop up suddenly and last weeks, even months.
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Dust storms were always a potential hazard for Opportunity due to the fact that it gathers and generates its power via sunlight reaching its critical solar panels that cover the majority of the "top" of the rover.
Opportunity was designed with weathering huge storms in mind. And it's seen dust storms bigger than the one it's experiencing now. It's unclear when the storm will eventually subside, but even if the storm ultimately doomed Opportunity it would have already vastly outlived its original mission.
'The rover has proved hardier than expected by lasting almost 15 years, despite being designed for a 90-day mission, ' the agency said. During southern hemisphere (where Opportunity is) summer, sunlight warms dust particles, lifting them higher into the atmosphere and creating more wind.
For the time being, NASA has temporarily shut down any scientific operations, which means turning off most instruments attached to the spacecraft.
The latest data transmission from Opportunity on Sunday morning showed the rover's temperature to be about -20°F (-29°C).
The rover could soon dip into its battery reserves and, not long after, it may be unable to communicate with engineers.
Scientists are anxious the rover won't survive this storm, but there's still hope. The rover needs to balance low levels of charge in its battery with sub-freezing temperatures. Likewise, performing certain actions draws on battery power, but can actually expel energy and raise the rover's temperature.
Opportunity (and Spirit) landed on the Red Planet in January 2004.