NASA rover knocked out as enormous dust storm envelops Mars

NASA rover knocked out as enormous dust storm envelops Mars

NASA's media teleconference discussed a massive Martian dust storm affecting operations of the agency's Opportunity rover and what scientists can learn from the various missions studying this unprecedented event. First detected by NASA on June 1, the storm ballooned to more than 18 million square.km and included the Opportunity's current location at Perseverance Valley in the Red Planet by June 8.

NASA engineers attempted to contact the Opportunity rover today but did not hear back from the almost 15-year old rover.

The mission clock will trigger the computer to turn back on to check power levels sporadically, NASA said.

UPDATE: June 13, 2018, 2:05 p.m. EDT This story was updated to include more details on the storm and Opportunity from NASA.

During the even more extensive 2007 dust storm, Opportunity spent two weeks in low power mode and was out of contact with Earth for several days.

The above image is a series of pictures that NASA simulated from the perspective of its Opportunity rover.

Opportunity beamed a message to its handlers on Sunday (June 10), which is a good sign; it shows the rover still has a decent amount of battery power left.

"Not all Mars watchers are thrilled with the idea of a global dust storm, which can adversely affect ongoing missions", NASA noted in a January news release for the Reconnaissance Orbiter, which also described the precise loss-of-power scenario Opportunity now confronts.

NASA's Opportunity mission can rightly be called the rover that just wouldn't quit. Opportunity, however, has kept exploring well past its expected mission lifetime. In that case, the rover will simply remain asleep until the sky clears and the battery charge increases enough to trigger safety routines that will wake up the flight computer.

In the meantime, the rover must endure freezing overnight temperatures, putting thermal stress on Opportunity's internal components. "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".

Opportunity has lived an fantastic life on Mars.

Spirit finally went silent on March 22, 2010, stuck in deep sand and unable to favorably orient itself so its solar arrays could face the low-altitude sun during the harsh martian winter.

But surviving the current dust storm could prove a major challenge for the ageing robot.

"Full dust storms like this one are not surprising, but are infrequent", NASA said in its status report. While they can begin suddenly, they tend to last on the order of weeks or even months. As soil gets warmed up, updrafts form in the thin Martian air and create dust devils, which suck fine dust high into the atmosphere. That wind kicks up yet more dust, creating a feedback loop that NASA scientists are still trying to understand. In addition to Opportunity, the Mars rover Curiosity is monitoring dust levels from the storm.

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