Published: Sat, June 16, 2018
Sci-tech | By Carrie Guzman

Dust storm on Mars knocks out NASA rover

Dust storm on Mars knocks out NASA rover

Mission officials first got word that a storm could be headed toward the rover at the start of June.

Engineers are optimistic Opportunity will survive its trial by dust, but given its age and their emotional attachment to the hardy robot, they will not rest easy until skies clear enough for power levels to rise, allowing the rover to finally phones home.

If the rover's power dips even lower than it is now, it's possible that Opportunity's clock could turn off, meaning that NASA will need to remain vigilant to listen for any pings from the rover that would come at somewhat random intervals if it's able to come back online, Callas said. Opportunity is located near the middle of the storm, while the newer rover Curiosity - which is nuclear-powered, so not threatened by the loss of sunlight - is now near the storm's edge.

"We should be able to ride out this storm", said John Callas, Opportunity project manager at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, "We're concerned, but we're hopeful that the storm will clear and the rover will begin to communicate to us". They landed in 2004.

Fortunately, Opportunity has advantages that your typical 97-year-old grandmother may lack. 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.

The dust is accumulating in a thin layer, and is not expected to bury the rover. If enough dust covers the solar panels of the aging robot, Opportunity could be in danger, as scientists have said in the past. The agency expects Opportunity shifted into a "low power fault mode", which disables all systems except the mission clock, reducing power usage from scarce energy stored in its batteries. If the clock also goes offline, then the rover won't 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.

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Right now, the vast plain Opportunity is exploring - Meridiani Planum - is blanketed in the most intense dust storm that NASA scientists have ever witnessed. It jumped back into action after awakening from its deep self-protecting slumber. The only additional source of heat to prevent this failure are eight plutonium-powered devices that generate a watt each.

Scientists are eager to learn as much as they can about the dust storm to hone their weather forecasting skills. Engineers are waiting for, will the Rover to overcome the storm and still work once the dust settles.

NASA says a global dust storm is forming.

Experts said the dust storm is not likely to endanger NASA's InSight mission, which launched earlier this year and is scheduled to land in November, on a mission to study quakes on Mars. "It just doesn't get any better than that". "If we were to happen to end up in a situation where there was a dust storm at the time of landing, we could fly right through it", he said.

Dust storms aren't unusual on Mars, and researchers were ready with a temporary solution - Opportunity rover can be put into a low-power mode. On Tuesday, June 12, 2018, flight controllers tried to contact Opportunity, but the rover did not respond.

One measure of the intensity of the dust storm is the optical depth of the atmopshere, with higher numbers representing more dust in the atmosphere.

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