As Massive Storm Rages on Mars, Opportunity Rover Falls Silent

Enlarge  The vanishing Sun progressively obscured by the dust storm

Launched from Cape Canaveral on July 7, 2003, Opportunity landed on the red planet five-and-a-half months later, on January 24, 2004, three weeks after a twin rover, Spirit, bounced to an airbag-cushioned landing on the other side of the planet.

A NASA rover on Mars has fallen silent as a enormous dust storm envelops the planet and blots out the sun.

A saving grace about these storms is that they limit the extreme temperature swings, and the dust they kick up can also absorb solar radiation, thus raising ambient temperatures around Opportunity.

And while there's a chance the hardest-working rover on Mars won't make it through the storm, scientists are still hopeful.

"This team has a very strong bond with the rover, a very tight emotional connection with it", said John Callas, Opportunity project manager at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. "We think we can ride this out for a while".

When the storm was first detected, Opportunity's batteries were delivering 645 watt hours of energy as it explored a channel-like depression in the rim of a large crater.

Meanwhile, the storm itself is providing an opportunity for some science.

Despite the lack of sunlight to generate power, Callas said he was optimistic that the rover, which has been operating for more than 14 years on the surface, would survive the storm.

Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity has been delivering science from the surface of the Red Planet for over 14 years now - an incredible accomplishment for a robot that was only intended for an initial 90 day mission.

Flight controllers tried late on Tuesday night to contact Opportunity, but the rover did not respond.

An animation showing the dust storm highlighted in an exaggerated red expanding to cover most of Mars
An animation showing the dust storm highlighted in an exaggerated red expanding to cover most

If power levels drop far enough, even the clock will stop ticking.

If the batteries are insufficiently charged, the computer will again enter a sleep mode, the same mode used each night to power down the rover.

The Opportunity Rover has fallen silent and controllers have been unable to reach it, according to reports from the news wires. The dust storm is actually keeping it relatively warm on Mars, so Opportunity will likely stay warm enough to turn back on when the dust clears. "It just doesn't get any better than that".

If the rover's power dips even lower than it is now, it's possible that Opportunity's clock could turn off, meaning that NASA will need to remain vigilant to listen for any pings from the rover that would come at somewhat random intervals if it's able to come back online, Callas said. The last temperature reading from Opportunity was -20F (-29C), NASA said Sunday.

"It's like you have a loved one in a coma in the hospital, the doctors are telling you you've just got to give it time and she'll wake up. By no means are we out of the wood here".

Scientists aren't almost as concerned about the newer, nuclear-powered Curiosity rover on the other side of Mars, which is already seeing darkening skies.

Opportunity has lived an fantastic life on Mars.

Spirit has not worked for several years.

Opportunity and Spirit have totally overhauled our understanding of Martian geology, revealing never-before-seen rocky features on Mars. Imaging from orbit suggested that the valley may have been cut by flowing water, and the rover is being sent to look for evidence of that.

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