NASA’s Opportunity rover halted over Martian dust storm

A Powerful Dust Storm Has Darkened the Skies Over Opportunity on Mars

A Powerful Dust Storm Has Darkened the Skies Over Opportunity on Mars

NASA's Opportunity mission can rightly be called the rover that just wouldn't quit. It arrived on Mars in 2004, and it was supposed to be operational for only 90 days.

However, a few weeks ago, NASA received distributing news that potentially posed a threat to the "little rover that could". A Martian storm, which has since grown to occupy an area larger than North America - 18 million km² (7 million mi²) - was blowing in over rover's position in the Perseverance Valley. Luckily, NASA has since made contact with the rover, which is encouraging sign. This is a problem because the rover uses solar panels to provide its power and recharge its batteries.

Artist's conception of a Mars Exploration Rover, which included Opportunity and Spirit.

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

There is a risk that Opportunity will get too cold as it struggles to power its internal heaters, which protect its batteries from Mars' extreme cold.

The Martian cold is believed to be what resulted in the loss of the Spirit rover in 2010, Opportunity's counterpart in the Mars Exploration Rover mission. The rover was only created to last 90 days but has vastly exceeded expectation, and is now in its 14 year on the Martian surface. It's also important to note that Opportunity has dealt with long-term storms before and emerged unscathed. For comparison, a major 2007 dust storm had an opacity level, or tau, above 5.5 while the current storm had an estimated tau of 10.8 as of 6 June.

But data from the transmission on Sunday told engineers that the rover still has enough battery charge to communication with ground controllers at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

The Opportunity rover was forced to halt operations last week as the storm swept over Perserverance Valley, bringing enough dust to blot out the sun.

Full dust storms though one are not surprising, but are infrequent. The same swirling dust that blocks out sunlight also absorbs heat, raising the ambient temperature surrounding Opportunity'. "That wind kicks up yet more dust, creating a feedback loop that NASA scientists still seek to understand". "They can crop up suddenly but last weeks, even months".

It also showed the rover's temperature to be around -29C. NASA officials quickly notified the rover's operating team so they could begin contingency planning.