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As Massive Storm Rages on Mars, Opportunity Rover Falls Silent

13 June 2018

Luckily, NASA has since made contact with the rover, which is encouraging sign.

NASA's Opportunity rover is in jeopardy right now, as an huge dust storm now blankets its location on Mars, cutting off the rover's power supply and causing it to lose contact with Earth. The storm quickly grew over the next few days and resulted in dust clouds that raised the atmosphere's opacity, which blocked out most of the sunlight from reaching the surface.

Controllers expect it will be several more days before there's enough sunlight to recharge Opportunity's battery through its solar panels. 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.

This global map of Mars shows a growing dust storm as of June 6, 2018. The extreme cold of Mars is thought to be what killed Opportunity's twin, the Spirit rover, after it got stuck in Martian sand in 2010. 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.

Back in 2007, a much larger storm covered the planet, which led to two weeks of minimal operations and no communications. In addition to Opportunity, the Mars rover Curiosity is monitoring dust levels from the storm. The previous storm had an opacity level, or tau, somewhere above 5.5; this new storm had an estimated tau of 10.8 as of morning on June 10.

'This latest data transmission showed the rover's temperature to be about minus 20 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 29 degrees Celsius).

The dust has blotted out the Sun in many regions, including Opportunity's current location at Perseverance Valley.

Full dust storms like this and the one that took place in 2007 are rare, but not surprising. That's of concern. The problem isn't the dust, but the darkness it creates. "That wind kicks up yet more dust, creating a feedback loop that NASA scientists still seek to understand". "They can crop up suddenly but last weeks, even months". "One saving grace of dust storms is that they can actually limit the extreme temperature swings experienced on the Martian surface". The team is now operating under the assumption that the charge in Opportunity's batteries has dipped below 24 volts and the rover has entered low power fault mode, a condition where all subsystems, except a mission clock, are turned off. The solar-powered Opportunity has therefore temporarily ceased science operations.

As Massive Storm Rages on Mars, Opportunity Rover Falls Silent