Martian rover threatened by massive dust storm

Opportunity rover

"At that point, the rover will autonomously try to wake up and communicate with us". The rover has now been shifted to minimal operations in a bid to conserve energy, while still providing just enough electricity to run its heaters. Even in the worst of storms, only a layer of fine dust is left behind.

This 30-day time-lapse of the Martian atmosphere was capture by Opportunity during the 2007 dust storm. First detected by NASA on June 1, the storm ballooned to more than 18 million square.km and included the Opportunity's current location at Perseverance Valley in the Red Planet by June 8. Over time the dust clouds grow to encompass entire regions, and those regional storms can combine to form globe-engulfing weather events.

By June 10, the optical density had grown to 10.8, a record high, and the rover's output had dropped to 22 watt-hours.

The opacity of the storm, an indication of how effectively it is blocking out sunlight, is at record levels for Opportunity, making it hard for the rover's solar arrays to fully charge its batteries. "We think we can ride this out for a while". The solar-powered rover has been in operation for almost 15 years - but if its batteries dip below 24 volts of electrical charge, it's programmed to put almost all its systems into sleep mode and wait until the batteries are sufficiently charged up. That would require a "more complicated recovery", he said, but one that could still be carried out.

That assessment is far more optimistic than what another NASA official said earlier in the day.

Camera IconNASA's Curiosity rover pictured on Mars.

Opportunity was in remarkably good health going into the storm, Callas said, with only an arthritic joint in its robotic arm. That means Opportunity's solar panels aren't getting enough sunlight to phone home from its Perseverance Valley location on Mars.


A recent photo by Curiosity suggests that dust may be encroaching a bit on its locale, the 96-mile-wide (154 kilometers) Gale Crater.

If the rover's power dips even lower than it is now, it's possible that Opportunity's clock could turn off, meaning that NASA will need to remain vigilant to listen for any pings from the rover that would come at somewhat random intervals if it's able to come back online, Callas said.

A saving grace about these storms is that they limit the extreme temperature swings, and the dust they kick up can also absorb solar radiation, thus raising ambient temperatures around Opportunity.

Engineers are also concerned that freezing temperatures caused by the storm could damage the rover, as cold is thought to be what led to the breakdown of NASA's Spirit rover - Opportunity's twin - in 2010.

Both landers were built to last at least three months in the harsh environment of Mars and while mission managers were hopeful they would exceed their design life, there were no guarantees. This storm, Zurek said, should die out before that landing, although there is a chance a second storm could later form.

Watzin said that the main instruments used to guide InSight for a landing, an inertial measurement unit and radar, wouldn't be adversely affected by dust if a storm is taking place.

The storm is so large - an estimated 40 million kilometres squared - that it has completely obscured the planet and blotted out the Sun.

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