Opportunity rover goes dark during Mars dust storm

14 June, 2018, 16:02 | Author: Darnell Taylor
  • The dark streak is from the impact destabilizing the ground.                  NASA  JPL  University of Arizona

"If the rover's computer determines that its batteries don't have enough charge, it will again put itself back to sleep", NASA officials said.

Engineers last received a transmission from the 15-year-old Opportunity on Sunday morning.

The storm is one of the most intense ever observed on the Red Planet. It survived a less severe dust storm in 2007. The main concern, he said, was that the rover would get too cold.

One complication, he said, is if the rover's power drops low enough that it can not operate an onboard clock. The doctors are telling you to give it time, and the vital signs are good.

We are concerned but we are hopeful that the storm will clear and the rover will be able to communicate with us.

Another NASA rover called Curiosity, which arrived on Mars in 2012, does not face the same level of threat from the storm, which was detected on May 30.

The dust storm's total area is big enough to cover North American and Russian Federation. Although the rover now steers with two wheels instead of four and one of its arm joints is a bit creaky, it's currently exploring Perseverance Valley, a feature carved into the rim of Endeavor Crater.

Operators at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) attempted to contact the rover on Tuesday but did not receive a signal, which means the craft has likely entered a "low power fault mode" wherein all systems, save a mission clock, are shut down.

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Monitoring Opportunity's power levels will indicate how successfully the rover is able to balance a lower-than-normal battery charge with the need to keep heaters operating to offset the frigid temperatures. Dust storms reduce the rover's access to sunlight and therefore its ability to charge.

Jim Watzin, director of the Mars Exploration Program, said this attention to build quality is what has kept the Opportunity rover going so far past its 90-day mission forecast.

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

"We're all pulling for Opportunity, it has been a remarkable rover", he said. The final frame, on the right, is a simulation based on the rover's data. The rover needs help from heaters to protect its batteries, much like running a vehicle in the winter to protect battery life.

Although the rover needs solar energy, it has about 8 watts of thermal energy available in its insulated box.

NASA is now listening constantly for any communication from the rover, but that won't happen until the storm clears. At most, it could endure for a month or two. Dust would be whipping around as Opportunity sits on the rusty ground, with all but its mission clock turned off, waiting for the storm to end. This storm, Zurek said, should die out before that landing, although there is a chance a second storm could later form. Engineers hope that the storm will provide some atmospheric shielding against the planet's dramatic daily temperature swings, Callas said.

A saving grace about these storms is that they limit the extreme temperature swings, and the dust they kick up can also absorb solar radiation, thus raising ambient temperatures around Opportunity.

The storms' cyclical nature, however, are poorly understood.

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