Giant Martian Dust Storm Threatens Opportunity Rover

Giant Martian Dust Storm Threatens Opportunity Rover

NASA’s Opportunity rover has survived on Mars much longer than originally intended, but the planet is testing the little robot right now. A massive dust storm is sweeping across the landscape, blotting out the sun and leaving Opportunity stranded. However, NASA says the plucky little rover remains operational, and the team hopes it will meet this challenge as it has so many others.

The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter first spotted the beginnings of this super-storm on June 1st. The MRO team notified Opportunity’s controllers as soon as they saw how close it was to the rover. It didn’t take long for the dust storm to grow in size to cover more than 7 million square miles (11.2 million square kilometers), which is larger than North America. Stuck smack in the middle of it is Opportunity. The small blue dot in the below image of the storm (click to enlarge) indicates Opportunity’s location in Perseverance Valley.

Giant Martian Dust Storm Threatens Opportunity Rover

This is a problem for the rover because unlike its younger cousin Curiosity, Opportunity is solar-powered. According to NASA, the opacity level or “tau” of the new storm is 10.8. That means very little light is reaching the surface. Opportunity reported a significant drop in battery charge last Wednesday, so NASA suspended science operations and placed the rover in low power mode.

The good news is Opportunity made contact with NASA over the weekend to confirm that it’s still operational. At the time, the rover reported an internal temperature of -20 degrees Fahrenheit (-29 Celsius). In low power mode, the rover conserves power to make sure its heaters remain active. Without the heaters, the rover’s batteries would likely fail and doom the mission.

Opportunity has already survived one sizeable dust storm. Back in 2007, Opportunity came through a two-week storm unscathed. However, the tau rating of that storm was just 5.5. There’s much less light available to recharge the batteries this time, so the Opportunity team is hoping for a shorter storm.

Even if Opportunity doesn’t survive this storm, it’s already more than done its part to explore Mars. Opportunity and its sibling Spirit arrived on the planet 15 years ago and were designed to operate for 90 days — it’s the longest-running Mars rover by a wide margin. Spirit was taken out by Martian cold in 2010, but Opportunity has now explored Mars for 50 times longer than its original mission. NASA will continue making contact with the rover every few days until the storm abates. Fingers crossed Opportunity will keep setting records on Mars.

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