mars surface dust storm

Opportunity Mars rover loses Earth contact in raging dust storm

Image credit: Dreamstime

Nasa’s Opportunity rover has lost contact with the Earth while a gigantic dust storm covering at least a quarter of the surface of Mars blots out the Sun.

On Tuesday, Nasa engineers attempted to contact the Opportunity but did not hear back from the 15-year old rover.

The team is now operating under the assumption that the charge in Opportunity’s batteries has dipped below 24 volts and the rover has entered low-power fault mode, a condition where all subsystems, except a mission clock, are turned off. The rover’s mission clock is programmed to wake the computer so it can check power levels.

The Opportunity was originally launched in 2003, alongside its twin rover Spirit, with a planned 90-day mission to investigate soil and rock samples and take panoramic photos of its landing site.

While Spirit hasn’t operated since 2010 after getting stuck in soft soil, Nasa has repeatedly extended Opportunity’s lifespan in the time since to carry out further study of the Martian landscape.

Officials said they are hopeful the rover will survive the storm, which is expected to encircle the planet in another few days.

It could be weeks or even months until the sky clears enough for sunlight to reach the Martian surface and recharge Opportunity’s batteries through its solar panels.

For now, Mars’s oldest working rover is stuck in the middle of the raging storm, in round-the-clock darkness.

“By no means are we out of the woods here,” said John Callas, the Opportunity project manager at Nasa’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. “This storm is threatening and we don’t know how long it will last and we don’t know what the environment will be like once it clears.”

Scientists are not as concerned about the newer, nuclear-powered Curiosity rover on the other side of Mars, which is already seeing darkening skies.

Dust storms crop up every so often on Mars, sending dust tens of miles into the atmosphere and turning day into night. Spacecraft orbiting Mars are too high to be affected.

There is no chance of Opportunity being buried or getting a wheel stuck in dust. Even in the worst of storms, only a layer of fine dust is left behind. Managers said the main concern is that dust could temporarily cover its optical instruments.

The rover’s batteries are likely to be so low that only a clock is still working, to wake the spacecraft for periodic power-level checks, according to officials. 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.

In 2007, a massive dust storm kept the rover silent for a few days. It jumped back into action after waking from its deep self-protecting slumber.

This time, the rover’s energy level is believed to be much lower. On the plus side, Martian summer is approaching and should keep temperatures up at night and prevent the batteries and other parts from freezing.

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

Astronauts living on Mars would not want to get caught outside in a fierce dust storm, where winds can reach 70mph - almost hurricane force. The Martian atmosphere is so thin that while the wind can lift dust off the surface, it doesn’t topple a spacecraft.

Last week, the Curiosity rover detected organic compounds on the surface of Mars providing some of the strongest evidence yet that the Red Planet may once have harboured life. 

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