Huge Dust Storm on Mars Sidelines NASA's Opportunity Rover

Wednesday, 13 Jun, 2018

Scientists are anxious the rover won't survive this storm, but there's still hope. Additional information has been requested from the rover via the global system of antennas that talks to all the agency's deep space probes, the Deep Space Network. The latest data transmission showed the rover's temperature is about minus 29 degrees Celsius.

Dust storms are infrequent on Mars, but they do arise from time to time. But Curiosity's discoveries are cause for some optimism in this regard, NASA officials said.

Despite limited sunlight to charge its battery, Opportunity also needs to deal with sub-freezing temperatures on Mars. Without the heaters, the rover's batteries would likely fail and doom the mission.

A NASA robot has detected more building blocks for life on Mars - the most complex organic matter yet - from 3.5 billion-year-old rocks on the surface of the Red Planet, scientists said on Thursday. As stated by the officials of the USA space agency, "Full dust storms like this one are not surprising, but are infrequent".

As the rover team prepared the contingency plan to deal with the situation, the storm grew more intense than expected. The storm quickly grew to cover over 7 million square miles (18 million square kilometers) and swept across Perseverance Valley where Opportunity is located. The space agency said that this undesirable condition is similar to that of "an extremely smoggy day that blots out sunlight".

The Opportunity rover uses solar panels for power and to recharge its batteries, and by June 6, its power levels had dropped significantly. The rover has now been shifted to minimal operations in a bid to conserve energy, while still providing just enough electricity to run its heaters. Back in 2007, in fact, an even larger storm than the one this week covered a huge portion of Mars, with the rover going into low-power mode for two weeks.

"It's not unlike running a auto in the winter so that the cold doesn't sap its battery charge", NASA writes in a release. There is a fear that if the rover's power stays down for too long, the Martian cold could damage Opportunity, which has been exploring Mars since 2004.

NASA's Opportunity rover has spent well over 5,000 days on Mars, and has survived well past its initial 90 day mission and outlived its inactive sister rover, Spirit. "They can crop up suddenly but last weeks, even months". Opportunity is in its 15th year; the team has operated the rover for more than 50 times longer than originally planned. In many ways, Mars is like the Maltese Falcon of the movie with the same name: the stuff dreams are made of.