NASA Opportunity rover’s life in limbo as Mars dust storm rages on

The dark streak is from the impact destabilizing the ground.                  NASA  JPL  University of Arizona

The dark streak is from the impact destabilizing the ground. NASA JPL University of Arizona

Earlier today, NASA held a teleconference to update the public on Opportunity's status, and while the current situation is grim, the agency is still holding out hope that the rover will be able to weather the storm.

An animation showing the dust storm, highlighted in an exaggerated red, expanding to cover most of Mars.

NASA's Opportunity Mars rover has stopped responding in the midst of a large dust storm on the planet's surface. The last such major storm occurred in 2007, which sent NASA's rovers into a "hunker down" mode for several weeks before the skies cleared.

Martian dust storms are more easily whipped up on the Red Planet than on Earth because of Mars' thin atmosphere.

The scientists also said that the Curiosity rover, which is in Gale Crater, should be fine. Normally, these storms, which can grow to become planet-encircling, start out locally and pass the valley before growing.

There is a chance that the extreme cold could put Opportunity out of action for good if the storm persists for too long.


Operators at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) attempted to contact the rover on Tuesday but did not receive a signal, which means the craft has likely entered a "low power fault mode" wherein all systems, save a mission clock, are shut down. The rover's mission clock is programmed to wake the computer so it can check power levels. "It's in its low-power mode, and it'll remain in that low-power mode until there's sufficient energy to charge the batteries back above a certain threshold", Callas said during the press conference. Without sunlight, the rover can not recharge its batteries, which it needs for operations. The last temperature reading from Opportunity was -20F (-29C), NASA said Sunday. Engineers will monitor the rover's power levels closely in the week to come. The rover has proved hardier than expected by lasting almost 15 years, despite being designed for a 90-day mission.

Launched from Cape Canaveral on July 7, 2003, Opportunity landed on the red planet five-and-a-half months later, on January 24, 2004, three weeks after a twin rover, Spirit, bounced to an airbag-cushioned landing on the other side of the planet.

"It's like you have a loved one in a coma in the hospital. When the skies clear and the rover begins to power up, it should begin to communicate with us".

"Keep in mind, we're talking about a rover that's been working at Mars, hanging in there, for 15 years and designed just for 90 days", said Jim Watzin, director of NASA's Mars exploration program.

Maxwell, who left NASA in 2013 for Google, notes in the spirit of anthropomorphizing common to those involved with rovers, "She did more than anyone expected from her or ever could have expected from her, and if we can all say that at the end of our lives, then we'll be as lucky as she is". "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".

Controllers expect it will be several more days before there's enough sunlight to recharge Opportunity's battery through its solar panels. We don't now know what causes one of these storms to go global or why this one in particular seemed to strengthen at an unusual place.

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