Published: Fri, June 15, 2018
Science | By Cecil Little

Gigantic Mars dust storm threatens Nasa's Opportunity rover

Gigantic Mars dust storm threatens Nasa's Opportunity rover

"The Martian dust storm that has blotted out the sun above Opportunity has continued to intensify", NASA officials wrote in a mission update Tuesday.

Opportunity - which has been exploring the Martian surface for about 15 years - charges itself through solar panels that feed its batteries.

But the dust storm now enveloping a quarter of Mars has turned day to night at the rover's equatorial location.

"It is concerning; this team has a very strong bond with the rover", said John Callas, the Opportunity project manager at Nasa's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. "We're concerned, but we're hopeful that the storm will clear and the rover will begin to communicate with us". But the pace at which the storm grew is unprecedented.

The nuclear-powered Curiosity Mars rover, operating in Gale Crater well away from Opportunity, is not expected to be impacted by the current storm.

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Spirit hasn't worked for several years.

Camera IconNASA's Curiosity rover pictured on Mars.

The storm covers an area as large as North America and Russian Federation combined - a quarter of the surface of Mars - and has left the golf-cart-sized rover temporarily unable to conduct science operations.

"Each observation of these large storms brings us one step closer to being able to model them", Zurek said, and his colleague Watson noted that "we're fortunate that we have a record number of operational spacecraft at Mars" to make those observations. Without them, there's a chance that Opportunity could drop below the temperature at which critical components would fail.

Mars experiences regional dust storms annually, but only occasionally do they expand to engulf the entire planet. Managers said the main concern is that dust could temporarily cover its optical instruments. As such, NASA says it now believes Opportunity has put itself into a "low power fault mode", which means that only its mission clock remains active; all subsystems are currently powered down.

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If the clock also goes offline, then the rover will not know what time it is when it comes back on and could send back signals at any time.

And the dust is incredibly thick over Endeavour Crater - thicker than anything Opportunity has dealt with before, mission team members said. It jumped back into action after awakening from its deep self-protecting slumber. In that case, the rover will simply remain asleep until power levels increase enough to trigge the flight computer. On the plus side, Martian summertime is approaching and that should keep temperatures up at night and prevent the batteries and other parts from freezing. It relies on radioisotope thermoelectric generator (RTGs): plutonium-powered devices that convert the heat of radioactive decay into electricity.

Scientists are eager to learn as much as they can about the dust storm to hone their weather forecasting skills.

Astronauts living on Mars, for instance, would not want to get caught outside in a fierce dust storm. The Martian atmosphere is so thin that while the wind can lift dust off the surface, it doesn't topple a spacecraft.

Created to work for just 90 days when it landed back in January 2004, Opportunity has managed to keep on rolling even though it does so now only in reverse and the arm that it uses to put instruments next to rocks to examine them is arthritic. "You have the doctors telling you that, 'Okay, you just have to give it time and she'll wake up.' All the vital signs are good, so it's just waiting it out", Callas said.

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