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

There is life on Mars - maybe

There is life on Mars - maybe

But Nasa scientists emphasised that there could be nonbiological explanations for both discoveries made by the Curiosity rover at a site called Gale crater, leaving the issue of Martian life a tantalising but unanswered question. On Sunday, the rover sent a transmission back to Earth, letting NASA engineers know the rover still has enough battery life for basic communication. It was initially designed for just a 90-day mission.

An enormous dust storm on Mars has suspended NASA's exploration rover Opportunity from conducting scientific work, the USA space agency said Sunday in a statement.

As the rover team prepared the contingency plan to deal with the situation, the storm grew more intense than expected.

This storm has affected the Opportunity's solar panels, and it uses to recharge its batteries and helps to give power to the heaters which allow the rover to function in the extremely cold conditions of Mars.

And this is a problem - unlike Curiosity, which launched later with a nuclear generator, Opportunity relies on solar panels for power, and batteries for storage. Within a few days, the storm exploded in size, and it now covers an area measuring 7 million square miles, which is larger than North America. As stated by the officials of the US space agency, "Full dust storms like this one are not surprising, but are infrequent". The dust storm (not to be confused with a sandstorm) is raising atmospheric opacity, or "tau", blocking out light from the Sun, so it's much darker at the surface than usual.

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By Wednesday (June 6), Opportunity's power levels saw a major drop, forcing the rover to stop all science to conserve power.

"It's not unlike running a vehicle in the winter so that the cold doesn't sap its battery charge", NASA writes in a release.

Having said that, scientists hope that Opportunity can sustain the Martian dust storm because it has seen worst days. Recently, the turbulence reached NASA's Opportunity Rover's position and the mission was halted until the dust storm passes.

Regardless of the outcome, it is extremely important to remember that Opportunity is now in its 14th Earth year of operation of what was supposed to be a 90-day mission when the rover landed on the Meridiani Planum on 25 January 2004. Although this dust storm event is not shocking as it had occured previously, they do not frequently occur, once they occur they can last for even months.

While Green is confident that humankind will get to Mars within a couple of decades - NASA's target is 2040 - he explains that there are now significant obstacles to reaching this goal. During southern summer, sunlight warms dust particles, lifting them higher into the atmosphere and creating more wind. This produces more wind, which kicks up even more dust, creating a feedback loop.

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