Published: Wed, June 13, 2018
Science | By Michele Flores

Ageing Mars rover halts research, powers down in heavy dust storm

Ageing Mars rover halts research, powers down in heavy dust storm

A self-portrait of NASA's Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity, in 2014.

NASA's Opportunity rover on Mars did not return a call from Earth Tuesday (June 12) while enduring a massive dust storm that scientists have called "one of the most intense ever observed".

Officials said Wednesday they're hopeful the Opportunity rover will survive the storm, which already covers one-quarter of Mars and is expected to encircle the red planet in another few days.

"We think we can ride this out for a while". 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. "One saving grace of dust storms is that they can actually limit the extreme temperature swings experienced on the Martian surface". Much like Opportunity, Spirit's mission as only meant to last for 90 days, but the rover managed to remain in operation for 2269 days (2208 sols) from start to finish.

Controllers expect it will be several more days before there's enough sunlight to recharge Opportunity's battery through its solar panels.

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

In low-power fault mode, Opportunity's master clock is programmed to wake up the flight computer periodically to check the battery charge but if it's not sufficient, the computer will put itself back to sleep and the clock will set another alarm to wake it back up for another check.

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The mission clock will trigger the computer to turn back on to check power levels sporadically, NASA said. "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". According to Bean, this is the highest "tau" value that has ever been recorded for a Mars dust storm!

That said, things may get worse before they get better. If the rover loses power for an extended amount of time, there is a chance it won't be able to power the heaters needed to keep its electronics alive.

People working with the rover have also become attached to it over the years, so even if things are looking okay, it's still a scary prospect that this rover is alone and unable to phone home on Mars. But if it's your 97-year old grandmother, you're going to be very concerned.

NASA's solar-powered Opportunity Mars rover, seen here in an artist's concept, has powered down and suspended science operations because of a widespread dust storm that has sharply reduced the energy reaching its solar cells.

Opportunity has lived an awesome life on Mars.

The above image is a series of pictures that NASA simulated from the perspective of its Opportunity rover. The rovers found evidence of past volcanic activity, water flows, and meteor impacts.

Spirit operational life on Mars ended in 2010, but hopefully its twin will make it through the storm and keep on trucking for years to come.

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