Opportunity rover’s future is uncertain

Planet-wide dust storm could cause its demise.

NASA’s Opportunity rover has not contacted Earth since the beginning of a Martian dust storm two weeks ago that has since grown to encircle the entire planet.

Opportunity, which has been exploring Mars since landing in January 2004, is solar-powered. If its solar panels cannot access sunlight due to their being completely obscured by dust, the rover cannot recharge its batteries.

To conserve power, Opportunity put itself to sleep when the dust storm began and suspended all science operations.

In 2007, the rover survived a dust storm larger than this one; however, conditions now are more opaque than they were then.

Martian dust storms can last for weeks and even months, and there is no way to predict when one will dissipate. They commonly occur during the planet’s spring and summer.

This storm measures seven million square miles (18 million square km), meaning its area is larger than that of the entire North American continent.

“A dark, perpetual night has settled on the rover’s location in Mars’s Perseverance Valley,” a NASA statement noted.

Cold temperatures resulting from lack of sunlight also pose a potential threat to the rover although a recent analysis conducted by scientists indicates its electronics and batteries can remain warm enough to function even in an extremely cold environment.

Three Mars orbiters are currently observing and imaging the dust storm.

“We have a historic number of spacecraft operating at the Red Planet. Each offers a unique look at how dust storms form and behave–knowledge that will be essential for future robotic and human missions,” said director of NASA’s Mars Exploration Program Jim Watzin.

Designed for a 90-day mission, Opportunity is now in its 15th year of exploring the Red Planet. Its computers experienced some memory problems prior to the dust storm, but they did not prevent the rover from functioning.

NASA’s other Martian rover, Curiosity, located on the other side of the planet, is nuclear powered, so it can continue to function and collect data during the dust storm.

“Curiosity offers an unprecedented window to answer some questions. One of the biggest: Why do some Martian dust storms last for months and grow massive while others stay small and last only a week?” the space agency questioned in a statement.

While mission controllers continue to listen for a signal from Opportunity, they do not expect to hear anything until after the storm subsides.

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