NASA rover falls silent as gigantic dust storm envelops Mars

The Opportunity rover on Mars
Credit
AFP

The right shows the Sun so obscured by dust it looks like a pinprick. Each frame corresponds to a tau value, or measure of opacity: 1, 3, 5, 7, 9, 11.

THE NASA rover "Opportunity", which is stationed on Mars, has fallen silent as a big dust storm enveloped the Red Planet in the past 24 hours. This is bad news for the rover since it relies on solar panels for power and to recharge its batteries.

But data from the transmission on Sunday told engineers that the rover still has enough battery charge to communication with ground controllers at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. "And we're concerned about it, obviously".

A senior official there said: "It's like having a loved one in coma in the hospital. And so we are". "The storm, which was first detected on May 30, now blankets 14 million square miles (35 million square kilometers) of Martian surface-a quarter of the planet".

Simulated views of what Opportunity sees during the dust storm.

"Each observation of these large storms brings us one step closer to being able to model them", Zurek said, and his colleague Watson noted that "we're fortunate that we have a record number of operational spacecraft at Mars" to make those observations. The rover has proved hardier than expected by lasting almost 15 years, despite being designed for a 90-day mission.

Last night Nasa detailed how a real example of such a enormous natural event left their solar-powered rover Opportunity uncontactable and in danger.

Whereas the previous storm had an opacity level (tau) of about 5.5, this new storm has an estimated tau of 10.8.

If the rover's computer determines that its batteries don't have enough charge, it will again put itself back to sleep.

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"At that point, the rover will autonomously try to wake up and communicate with us".

"At this point, we're in a waiting mode, listening every day for possible signals", he said. And the Opportunity rover is in the middle of it.

If power levels drop far enough, even the clock will stop ticking. Over time the dust clouds grow to encompass entire regions, and those regional storms can combine to form globe-engulfing weather events. In that case, the computer is programmed to periodically check to see if the sun is up and if so, to phone home.

In order to survive, the rover must not exceed temperatures of -40C to +40C.

A dust storm is raging on Mars. We're also going into the summer season, and so the rover will not get as cold as it would normally. "The rover hits a steady-state temperature", NASA's Jim Watson told reporters, "at which point there's a balance between what little energy is coming out of the rover and what's lost to the environment". "We're concerned, but we're hopeful that the storm will clear and the rover will begin to communicate with us".

A self-portrait of NASA's Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity, in 2014. That's because it may not be able power its electronic circuits enough to prevent severe cold on Mars from damaging them. Then both rovers made it a full year, then two. And so it went, to everyone's ongoing amazement.

The rover touched down on the red planet with its twin Spirit in January 2004, and the robotic emissaries got to work right away in different parts of the world. NASA has continued to track the storm from orbit and the surface. "They can crop up suddenly but last weeks, even months".

Scientists said the swirling dust has created an extreme smog that blots out sunlight. That's of concern. The problem isn't the dust, but the darkness it creates.

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