Published: Wed, June 13, 2018
Sci-tech | By Brandy Patterson

NASA’s Mars rover weathers North America-sized dust storm

NASA’s Mars rover weathers North America-sized dust storm

The dust in the atmosphere is impacting the amount of power generated by the rover's solar panels. The updrafts of dust can trigger more winds, triggering a feedback loop that fuels the birth of a dust storm.

This isn't the first time Opportunity has dealt with a dust storm since it arrived on Mars in January 2004. The measured opacity level of the current storm is 10.8, almost double that of the 2007 event and temperatures in the region have dropped to minus 20 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 29 degrees Celsius). Dust storms can block out the sun for days, making it near impossible for the rover to recharge. However, NASA says the plucky little rover remains operational, and the team hopes it will meet this challenge as it has so many others.

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As of June 8, the storm spanned an area greater than 18 million square kilometres (7 million square miles), larger than the North American continent. The small blue dot in the below image of the storm (click to enlarge) indicates Opportunity's location in Perseverance Valley. However, the tau rating of that storm was just 5.5. The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, Mars Odyssey and MAVEN orbiters all routinely support Opportunity's operations on the ground and communication back to Earth via the Deep Space Network. It's now been puttering away up there for 14 years.

A statement put out by the space agency has detailed the circumstances that Opportunity is facing now. The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter caught sight of the developing bad weather, and the orbiter team passed on a warning to the Opportunity team at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory at the California Institute of Technology. Onboard instruments showed the rover's temperature to be -20° F (-29° C) at the latest data transmission, reducing the drain on the batteries while the systems generate heat of their own to help keep the rover warm. It means there's still enough charge left in the batteries to communicate with home, despite the fact that the storm is continuing to worsen.

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"Its heaters are vitally important to keeping it alive, but also draw more power from the battery", NASA wrote in a recent update.

On the other hand, if this massive dust storm on Mars is lasting for longer than usual, the rover would experience, once again, the so-called Martian Cold, a phenomenon that destroyed NASA's Spirit Rover, the Opportunity's "brother", in 2010. "Now that could be very deep inside Mars, but to be able to see that at the Martian surface today when we think that Mars has been mostly dead for about 3 billion years, it kind of contradicts that story, it tells us maybe Mars isn't quite as dead as we've been thinking it is".

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