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Giant Martian Dust Storm Threatens Opportunity Rover

12 June 2018

NASA's Opportunity rover may not have to worry about running into traffic congestion on Mars, but vast dust storms are definitely an occupational hazard.

The storm that is now blanketing Opportunity is absolutely massive in size, with NASA estimating that it covers a whopping 7 million square miles. According to NASA, the weather event the rover faced in 2007 had an opacity level around 5.5.

Interestingly enough, as nature often does, the current dust storm does have one positive effect for Opportunity: it lessens the degree to which Mars' temperatures plummet in the overnight hours as the dust absorbs heat and raises the ambient temperature surrounding Opportunity.

In a matter of days, the dust storm had grown rapidly to span more than 7 million square miles (18 million square kilometers) - an area greater than North America.

Presently, engineers will monitor Opportunity's power levels closely in the week to come. "They can crop up suddenly but last weeks, even months".

NASA's Opportunity rover has survived on Mars much longer than originally intended, but the planet is testing the little robot right now. NASA compared the conditions to "an extremely smoggy day that blots out sunlight". Critically, the dust raised the atmospheric opacity in Perseverance Valley, and Opportunity's power levels dropped significantly by Wednesday, 6 June, requiring the rover to shift to minimal operations.

The main concern here isn't the dust storm itself.

There is a chance that the extreme cold could put Opportunity out of action for good if the storm persists for too long. Cold is thought to be what killed NASA's Spirit rover, Opportunity's twin, in 2010 after that robot got stuck in the Martian sand.

But Opportunity is a survivor. And it's seen dust storms bigger than the one it's experiencing now. The map was produced by the Mars Color Imager (MARCI) camera on NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter spacecraft. In 2007 a much larger dust storm covered the entire Martian surface, forcing the rover to switch to minimal operations for a whole two weeks. To save power, the rover went days without phoning home to its controllers at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

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.

In fact, Opportunity has been surviving for 15 years. It landed on Mars in 2004 for a planned 90-day mission and is still going strong all these years later. The rover was only created to last 90 days but has vastly exceeded expectation, and is now in its 14 year on the Martian surface.

Giant Martian Dust Storm Threatens Opportunity Rover