Mars Opportunity rover is in danger of dying from a dust storm

Mars Opportunity rover is in danger of dying from a dust storm

NASA announced on Friday that the Opportunity rover is now being hit by the worst dust storm it's ever experienced in the 15 years since it landed on Mars.

The space agency says the current storm has an opacity level of 10.8, and that 2007's severe dust storm had a 5.5.

A dust storm larger than the continent of North America is now plaguing the Red Planet.

This is a problem for the rover because unlike its younger cousin Curiosity, Opportunity is solar-powered.

NASA launched the Opportunity rover as part of its Mars Exploration Rover program in 2004.

The same could not be said for Opportunity's companion probe, Mars Spirit, which failed completely after a dust storm in 2008.

It's not the first major dust storm Opportunity has had to weather.

For now, the engineers will just need to wait it out and see how the little robot comes through the storm.

On Friday (8 June), Opportunity's operators suspended all scientific observations for the rover in a power conservation effort to allow Opportunity to use what power was available to it to maintain heater operation for its critical systems - maintaining temperatures for Opportunity's systems to combat the low temperatures on Mars. The small blue dot in the below image of the storm (click to enlarge) indicates Opportunity's location in Perseverance Valley. The greatest tau - opacity level - seen here is 4.7.

Back in 2007, at the height of that dust storm, Opportunity sustained two weeks of minimal operations and even ceased contact with Earth for several days in various attempts to conserve all the power possible aboard the rover.

A "saving grace" of dust storms is that they can end up limiting the extreme temperature swings customary on Mars' surface, the agency said. This produces more wind, which kicks up even more dust, creating a feedback loop. The blue dot near the center shows Opportunity's location. The new storm has hit 10.8 tau. The higher that number climbs, the worse the situation becomes for Opportunity. It's now been puttering away up there for 14 years.

The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter first spotted the beginnings of this super-storm on June 1st.

NASA released a global map of Mars captured by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter on June 6. This means the rover had enough power to send a message despite the fact that the sun was blotted out by dust, preventing a full charge to its solar panels.

Opportunity will work to recharge itself and achieve transmissions with engineers back on land communicating its state and showing the progress of the storm. If the situation continues to worsen, the next step would be to suspend Opportunity's communications with Earth to save additional power. Without the heaters, the rover's batteries would likely fail and doom the mission.

All the same, there are perils involved: the rover can't stay powered-down forever.

It will be balancing low levels of battery charge and sub-freezing temperatures. This is because Mars is really cold, and Opportunity relies on power from its solar panels to keep its battery warm. Likewise, performing certain actions draws on battery power, but can actually expel energy and raise the rover's temperature.

It landed on Mars' Meridiani Planum plain near its equator on January 25, 2004.

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