A gigantic dust storm brewing in Mars could spell the death for Opportunity – NASA’s oldest rover on the planet. The intensifying storm has blocked out the sun, making it difficult for the rover to recharge it’s batteries.
This unprecedented unusually severe dust storm, first detected on May 30, has covered a quarter of the planet of the Red Planet, the US space agency said at a press conference yesterday.
“The storm is one of the most intense ever observed on the Red Planet. As of June 10, it covered more than 15.8 million square miles (41 million square kilometers) – about the area of North America and Russia combined. It has blocked out so much sunlight, it has effectively turned day into night for Opportunity, which is located near the center of the storm, inside Mars’ Perseverance Valley,” said NASA.
Opportunity rover’s batteries are so low that all subsystems are off, except a mission clock, programmed to wake the computer for a periodic check of power levels. If the clock also goes offline, then the rover won’t know what time it is when it charges back to life.
NASA has declared a “spacecraft emergency” due to the low levels of power. The storm can last a few weeks or a few months.
In 2003, Nasa has launched the twin rovers – Opportunity and Spirit – to study the Red Planet. They landed on Mars in 2004. While the Spirit hasn’t worked for years, Opportunity kept exploring the planet for the last 15 years, well beyond its expected mission lifetime of 90 days.
Opportunity was last located in a spot called Perseverance Valley three days ago and “has fallen asleep and is waiting out the storm,” said John Callas, Opportunity project manager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
“We are concerned but we are hopeful that the storm will clear and the rover will be able to communicate with us.”
“In this point we are in a waiting mode. We are listening every day for possible signals from the rover,” he said, likening the atmosphere among colleagues to having a loved one lying in a coma.
But Callas is hopeful Opportunity will not fully shut down because the approaching Martian summer means temperatures should not dip below the rover’s minimal operating temperature, -55 degrees Celsius (-167 Fahrenheit).
The coldest NASA expects it to get is -36 C (-60 F).
NASA’s larger and newer Curiosity rover is on the other side of the planet, where the sky has already begun to darken from the storm.
However, NASA is not as worried about Curiosity, which landed in 2012, because it is nuclear-powered, not reliant on the Sun.