Fears for NASA Mars rover as Opportunity sits out dust storm

An artist’s impression of a dust storm blowing up on Mars. Image credit: NASA

NASA’s veteran Mars rover Opportunity is facing a major threat to its continuing mission. It has shut down from lack of power after a huge dust storm blew up on the Red Planet.

The storm has filled the air with dust, blotting out the Sun and depriving the robotic explorer of essential solar power.

Worried engineers back at mission control tried to contact Opportunity this week but received no reply as it sits out the dust storm.

They believe the rover has automatically gone into an emergency mode after the charge in its onboard batteries dropped below 24 volts. If so, then it will have switched off all its systems apart from the mission clock.

Dust storms on Mars are a fairly regular feature. But every five or six years – around three Mars years – one blows up that is big enough to encircle much or all of the planet for weeks on end.

The current storm was first detected on May 30. It has since covered around a quarter of the planet, and area of 40 million square kilometers (16 million square miles).

It is centred not far from where Opportunity is at a location named Perseverance Valley, on the edge of Endeavour Crater. The robot has trundled more than 28 miles from the site where it landed in Meridiana Planum on January 25th, 2004.

Two images from NASA’s Mars Global Surveyor orbiter, taken a month apart, show how a major storm in 2001 shrouded the planet. Image credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

Opportunity and its sister rover, Spirit, were sent on missions initially designed to last just 90 days. Spirit, on the other side of Mars, failed in March 2010. But Oppy, as its fans call it, has survived more than 14 years, continuing to make scientific discoveries. In February 2018, it notched up 5,000 sols, or martian days.

Now the dust storm threatens to put an end to Opportunity’s mission at last. The mission clock is programmed to wake the rover’s computer at regular intervals to check power levels.

Both rovers previously survived a previous global dust storm in 2007. They both shut down to sit it out for a few weeks before resuming operations. Another major dust storm was long overdue, and NASA say the new storm is much bigger than that of 2007.

NASA scientists hope that when the present storm subsides, the Sun will recharge Opportunity’s batteries to allow it to carry on working. The fear is that the dust will have covered its solar panels preventing any energy boost.

But at a press conference today, John Callas, Opportunity project manager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), was optimistic about the chances of his rover riding out the storm. He said: “We’re concerned, but hopeful that the storm will clear and the rover will be able to communicate with us.”

He said the physical volume of dust falling on the rover would be very tiny so there was no concern that Opportunity might be buried by it.”

The martian atmosphere is only one hundredth as dense as the Earth’s. As the Sun’s heat warms the planet’s surface in local summer, it causes warm air to rise, carrying dust, and producing winds of up to 100 km per hour (60 mph).

Callas pointed out that because the region was approaching summer, there would be plenty of sunlight once the skies cleared for Opportunity to recharge its batteries.

Tribute to Oppy

Some might say that Opportunity has already achieved so much more than expected that it demise is inevitable. But regular Mars-watcher Stuart Atkinson, who has followed every wheel-turn of the rover on his blog Road to Endeavour wrote a moving tribute on Facebook today about the crisis Opportunity faces.

He said: “It’s gutting that Opportunity is going through this, and a lot of people are feeling helpless and useless at the moment, and expressing those feelings here and elsewhere. Inevitably, others are scoffing and bleating ‘it’s only a machine, big deal…’.

“Well, it is a big deal. Because although it’s true that Opportunity is a machine – a collection of parts made out of metal and glass, wire and plastic – and she has no heart or eyes, no hands or feet, no feelings, no soul, she was designed, built, launched and for the past 14 years driven across Mars by incredible people who have all those things, who have poured their hearts and souls into her for a huge portion of their lives, and those people are hurting a lot right now and you have to be pretty damned heartless not to feel for them.

“Also, this is a big deal because Opportunity’s mission has been – and is continuing to be – incredibly successful. For almost a decade and a half she has driven into and out of craters, crossed vast plains of dust, found and studied meteorites, and is now exploring a fascinating valley on the slopes of a huge crater. She has done fantastic science every place she has visited, and was ready to do more, much more, before this dust storm enveloped her. If her mission ends this way it will be tragic, and we will have been cheated out of a lot more discoveries.

“So, no, Opportunity is not alive. But she was built with dreams and hope as much as she was built with spanners and lathes, and although she has no heart beating inside her she thrums with the heartbeats of the many thousands of people who put her together, guide her and follow her.

“It will be a long time beforw people stride across the ruddy surface of Mars, and until then robots will be our astronauts. Opportunity’s wheels are our boots, crumping across the Martian desert; her camera are our eyes, scanning the horizon, awed by Mars’ beauty; her robot arm’s instruments are our hands, reaching down to trail our fingers through the dust.

“For the past 14 years this little rover has been our Martian Ansell Adams, roaming the Martian wilderness, stopping here and there to drink in the scenery and take photographs showing the raw, rugged beauty of Mars, which will be, whatever some people say, the next frontier.

“Many of us have huge respect for her and, yes I suppose, love for her too. To think of losing her in this way is genuinely upsetting. I can’t imagine how helpless and useless the rover team must be feeling.

“So, she is a machine, yes, but not just a machine. She is one of us, if you’re ‘into’ space or not. And that’s why this is ‘a big deal’.”

Related: Mars rover snapped from orbit

Related: Opportunity finds Mars meteorite

Related: Our guide to Mars


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