Published: Thu, June 14, 2018
Science | By

NASA Rover knocked out as giant dust storm engulfs Mars

NASA Rover knocked out as giant dust storm engulfs Mars

Right now, the vast plain Opportunity is exploring - Meridiani Planum - is blanketed in the most intense dust storm that NASA scientists have ever witnessed. Each frame corresponds to a tau value, or measure of opacity: 1, 3, 5, 7, 9, 11.

NASA's Opportunity rover is in jeopardy right now, as an huge dust storm now blankets its location on Mars, cutting off the rover's power supply and causing it to lose contact with Earth. It has blocked out so much sunlight, it has effectively turned day into night for Opportunity, which is located near the center of the storm, inside Mars' Perseverance Valley. Data from the transmission let engineers know the rover still has enough battery charge to communicate with ground controllers at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. "And we're concerned about it, obviously".

"It's like you have a loved one in a coma in the hospital, the doctors are telling you you've just got to give it time and she'll wake up. And so we are".

Officials said Wednesday they're hopeful the rover will survive the storm, which already covers one-quarter of Mars and is expected to encircle the planet in another few days.

Engineers at NASA have put the robot into minimal operations mode and are waiting to see if it will still function once the dust has settled.

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.

Last night Nasa detailed how a real example of such a big natural event left their solar-powered rover Opportunity uncontactable and in danger. However, the current storm has intensified as of Sunday morning (June 10th), creating a perpetual state of night over the rover's location in Perseverance Valley and leading to a level of atmospheric opacity that is much worse than the 2007 storm.

Whereas the previous storm had an opacity level (tau) of about 5.5, this new storm has an estimated tau of 10.8.

"Engineers will monitor the rover's power levels closely in the week to come", NASA officials said.

"Our expectation at this point is that the rover has gone to sleep".

NASA's Opportunity mission can rightly be called the rover that just wouldn't quit.

If power levels drop far enough, even the clock will stop ticking.

This isn't Opportunity's first major brush with dust. In that case, the computer is programmed to periodically check to see if the sun is up and if so, to phone home.

This latest transmission also showed that the rover's temperature had reached about -29 °C (-20 °F).

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

The dust storm was first spotted on May 30 by NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, and it has been growing ever since. We're also going into the summer season, and so the rover will not get as cold as it would normally. However, the dust should warm the atmosphere and keep the rover above its minimum operating temperature.

From the perspective of NASA's long-lived Opportunity rover on Mars, the sky is almost black in the middle of the day. They landed in 2004. Then both rovers made it a full year, then two.

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