The dust storm on Mars on June 7 (left) and June 10 (right). (Supplied: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS)
NASA’s seemingly-unstoppable Mars rover Opportunity has been knocked out by a gigantic dust storm that is enveloping the red planet and blotting out the sun.
Mars’s oldest working rover is stuck in around-the-clock darkness in the middle of the raging storm, which already covers one-quarter of Mars — about 35 million square kilometres — and is expected to encircle it in another few days.
Flight controllers tried to contact Opportunity, but the rover did not respond.
It could be weeks or even months until the sky clears enough for sunlight to reach the Martian surface and recharge Opportunity’s batteries through its solar panels, with officials hopeful the rover could survive.
“By no means are we out of the woods here,” Opportunity project manager John Callas said.
“This storm is threatening, and we don’t know how long it will last, and we don’t know what the environment will be like once it clears.”
Spirit and Oppy tweet: The Martian dust storm blotting out the sun above Opportunity has continued to intensify. It blankets a quarter of the planet. All rover subsystems are off, except a mission clock, programmed to wake the computer to check power levels.
Rover ‘was in good health apart from arthritic joint’
There is no chance of Opportunity being buried or getting a wheel stuck in dust. Even in the worst of storms, only a layer of fine dust is left behind.
The main concern is dust could temporarily cover its optical instruments, managers said.
The rover’s batteries are likely so low, only a clock is still working, to wake the spacecraft for periodic power-level checks, according to officials.
If the clock also goes offline, then the rover will not know what time it is when it comes back on and could send back signals at any time.
Opportunity is Mars’s oldest working rover. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell University/Arizona State University)
Opportunity was in remarkably good health going into the storm, with only an arthritic joint in its robotic arm, Mr Callas said.
Director of NASA’s Mars exploration program Jim Watzin said:
“Keep in mind, we’re talking about a rover that’s been working at Mars, hanging in there, for 15 years and designed just for 90 days.”
“It just doesn’t get any better than that.”
This is not Opportunity’s first storm
The storm has been growing since the end of May with unprecedented speed.
Dust storms crop up every so often at Mars, sending dust tens of kilometres into the atmosphere and turning day into night. Spacecraft orbiting Mars are too high to be affected.
This is not Opportunity’s first major brush with dust.
In 2007, a massive dust storm kept Opportunity silent for a few days. It jumped back into action after awakening from its deep self-protecting slumber.
This time, the rover’s energy level is believed to be much lower.
On the plus side, Martian summertime is approaching and that should keep temperatures up at night and prevent the batteries and other parts from freezing.
Besides electrical heaters, Opportunity is equipped with eight tiny plutonium-powered heaters.
Scientists honing Mars weather-forecasting skills
NASA launched the twin rovers Opportunity and Spirit in 2003 to study Martian rocks and soil. They landed in 2004.
Spirit has not worked for several years, but Opportunity has kept exploring well past its expected mission lifetime.
Scientists are not nearly as concerned about the newer, nuclear-powered Curiosity rover on the other side of Mars, which is already seeing darkening skies.
Scientists are eager to learn as much as they can about the dust storm to hone their weather-forecasting skills.
Astronauts living on Mars, for instance, would not want to get caught outside in a fierce dust storm.
However, although winds can reach 113 kilometres per hour — nearly hurricane force — the Martian atmosphere is so thin that while the wind can lift dust off the surface, it could not topple a spacecraft.