Monday, 25 June, 2018


NASA rover falls silent as big dust storm envelops Mars

Opportunity rover A Powerful Dust Storm Has Darkened the Skies Over Opportunity on Mars
Kristine Garrett | 14 June, 2018, 00:01

Despite the worsening dust storm, Opportunity also sent a transmission to NASA engineers on the same day, the report said. "And we're concerned about it, obviously".

"But if it's your 97-year-old grandmother, you're going to be very concerned, and so we are. And so we are". The storm has been growing since the end of May and now covers one-quarter of the planet. It's also important to note that Opportunity has dealt with long-term storms before and emerged unscathed. Two days later, as the storm intensified and spread, energy levels had dropped to 345 watt hours and the day after, to 133. Space.com explains the fine line: Opportunity's handlers need to keep its heaters running at a level that will prevent it from freezing without draining the batteries.

On Tuesday, NASA's attempt to make contact with the rover failed, suggesting the battery level had finally dipped below 24 volts. And the Opportunity rover is in the middle of it. Over time the dust clouds grow to encompass entire regions, and those regional storms can combine to form globe-engulfing weather events.

The clock periodically wakes the rover computer to check power levels.

In the meantime, Opportunity's science operations remain suspended and the Opportunity team has requested additional communications coverage from NASA's Deep Space Network - the global system of antennas that communicates with all of the agency's deep space missions.

"At this point, we're in a waiting mode, listening every day for possible signals", he said. Without sunlight, the rover can not recharge its batteries, which it needs for operations.

But without the clock, Opportunity would not know what time it is. And if there's one thing Opportunity has proven, it is that it's capable of enduring!

"Because the rover's not active, it will be getting colder", Callas said.

Dust storms on Mars start with sunlight. We're also going into the summer season, and so the rover will not get as cold as it would normally. "When the skies clear and the rover begins to power up, it should begin to communicate with us".

A self-portrait of NASA's Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity, in 2014.

Both landers were built to last at least three months in the harsh environment of Mars and while mission managers were hopeful they would exceed their design life, there were no guarantees. And so it went, to everyone's ongoing amazement.

Losing the Sun has serious consequences for this solar powered robot. Spirit hasn't worked for several years.

But surviving the current dust storm could prove a major challenge for the ageing robot. Such storms last for weeks, sometimes months, but stop when the air temperatures equalize. 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". NASA's other active Mars rover, Curiosity, is better able to cope with the darkening storm because its power comes from a plutonium-fueled generator.

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