For months, a global dust storm has been raging on the surface of Mars. And now, it could be threatening the functionality of the longest-lived NASA robot exploring its surface.
The Mars rover Opportunity landed in January 2004 and was only expected to last for three months. The now 15-year-old rover has given NASA some of the most intimate photos of the Red Planet's surface.
However, on June 10, Opportunity lost contact with NASA and hasn't called home since. Dust storms aren't uncommon for Mars, but this one is particularly vicious. NASA officials called it "one of the most intense" storms ever recorded.
“I'm not sure what to say other than this is the worst storm Opportunity has ever seen, and we're doing what we can, crossing our fingers and hoping for the best,” MER Principal Investigator Steve Squyres, of Cornell University, told The MER Update in June.
Why the Opportunity Hasn't Phoned Home
Until the robot sends a signal to NASA, researchers have no idea how the robot is fairing during the storm. The extreme Martian event has blocked light from the Opportunity's solar panels as well as coat them in a dust. Both of these issues have reduced the rover's ability to gather and store solar power for energy.
“The dust here is thicker than anything I have ever encountered, going back to Viking missions,” said MER Deputy Principal Investigator Ray Arvidson of Washington University St. Louis, who served as Science Team Leader for the imaging system on NASA's Viking Landers from 1977 to 1982. “It’s dark, like the end of twilight dark.”
Despite the cold weather, the Opportunity still has bits of plutonium-238 to prevent the rover's circuitry from snapping in the cold. However, there are limited amounts of plutonium with the Opportunity, and researchers are worried about how long the rover will remain operational.
There's Still Hope for the Opportunity Rover
While things might seem bleak for now, NASA engineers at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California still have hope. Before the storm, the Opportunity's batteries were in really good health. The engineers hope that there won't be much damage done to them during the storm.
They're also putting hope in the temperature of dust storms. According to the JPL team, the 2018 storm happend as the Opportunity experienced Mars's summer. The researchers predict the dust storm will help trap some of the heat.
Opportunity has managed to survive horrific dust storms before, the JPL team noted. The most recent dust storm, however, is breaking new records.
“We've at least doubled the previous rover record,” said MER Athena Science Team member and atmospheric scientist Mark Lemmon, of Texas A&M University. Lemmon was on the team that helped Opportunity survive the previous mission high in 2007.
For right now, however, MER Project Manager John Callas of JPL said only a few things are certain.
“Our expectation at this point is that the rover has gone to sleep in this low power mode and will remain in that low power mode until there is sufficient energy to charge the batteries back above a certain threshold,” Callas said. If everything goes as designed and like it should, then at that point, “the rover will autonomously try to wake up and communicate with us,” he added.