Published: Thu, June 14, 2018
Sci-tech | By Brandy Patterson

NASA rover falls silent as huge dust storm envelops Mars

NASA rover falls silent as huge dust storm envelops Mars

The storm was first detected on Saturday, June 1 and promptly grew to span more than seven million square miles - an area greater than North America.

This series of images shows simulated views of a darkening Martian sky blotting out the Sun from NASA's Opportunity rover's point of view, with the right side simulating Opportunity's current view in the global dust storm (June 2018).

While the rover sent a transmission down to Earth on Sunday, the storm has intensified in recent days bringing "a dark, perpetual night over the rover's location", NASA said in a statement.

And while there's a chance the hardest-working rover on Mars won't make it through the storm, scientists are still hopeful.

Mars Opportunity Rover has shut everything down except its master clock after Martian dust storm.

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Artist's conception of a Mars Exploration Rover, which included Opportunity and Spirit.

On Tuesday, NASA's attempt to make contact with the rover failed, suggesting the battery level had finally dipped below 24 volts. Under these circumstances, the rover uses its clock to set the periodic wake-ups that allow it to check the amount of sunlight it's receiving.

If the rover's computer determines that its batteries don't have enough charge, it will again put itself back to sleep.

Program managers have requested additional communications coverage through NASA's Deep Space Network to keep close tabs on the rover during its latest trial by dust. Engineers will monitor the rover's power levels closely in the week to come.

Right now, the vast plain Opportunity is exploring - Meridiani Planum - is blanketed in the most intense dust storm that NASA scientists have ever witnessed.

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However, Opportunity was designed for only a 90-day mission and has lasted 15 years, so it's pretty hardy.

Scott Maxwell, a former Mars rover driver who led the team driving Opportunity and its twin Spirit for the first several years, says via email to Fortune, "I refuse to believe that anything can kill Opportunity-I half think she'll still be roving Mars when humans are forgotten!"

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.

One complication, he said, is if the rover's power drops low enough that it can not operate an onboard clock. "When the skies clear and the rover begins to power up, it should begin to communicate with us", Callas said, expressing confidence that Opportunity will not be buried in dust.

Where Opportunity lies, "it is completely black on Mars". The almost 15-year-old rover launched in 2003 and has been exploring Mars since it landed in January 2004. "We've done an estimate that shows the rover should stay above its minimum allowable operating temperatures for the long term, so we should be able to ride out this storm". Such storms last for weeks, sometimes months, but stop when the air temperatures equalize.

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Opportunity was in remarkably good health going into the storm, with only an arthritic joint in its robotic arm, Mr Callas said. They occur during summer in the southern hemisphere, when sunlight warms dust particles and lifts them higher into the atmosphere, creating more wind.

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