Published: Tue, June 12, 2018
Sci-tech | By Patricia Wade

Right Now, NASA's Opportunity Is Battling a Potentially Deadly Martian Dust Storm

By Wednesday June 6th, Opportunity was in minimal operations mode because of sharply decreasing power levels.

A vast dust storm larger than the entire North American continent is now raging on Mars-and it has forced NASA to suspend the scientific operations of its Opportunity rover.

Data has shown that the rover still has enough battery charge to communicate with controllers at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, the agency said. Opportunity, the much older rover that has been on Mars since early 2004, is still doing its thing, but an intense dust storm is making life hard for the aging robot.

"The storm's atmospheric opacity - the veil of dust blowing around, which can blot out sunlight - is now much worse than a 2007 storm that Opportunity weathered".

This isn't the first time Opportunity has dealt with a dust storm since it arrived on Mars in January 2004.

"The previous storm had an opacity level, or tau, somewhere above 5.5; this new storm had an estimated tau of 10.8 as of Sunday morning". It didn't take long for the dust storm to grow in size to cover more than 7 million square miles (11.2 million square kilometers), which is larger than North America.

"Full dust storms like this one are not surprising, but are infrequent", NASA officials said in the statement.

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And this is a problem - unlike Curiosity, which launched later with a nuclear generator, Opportunity relies on solar panels for power, and batteries for storage. The rover was only created to last 90 days, yet here we are more than a decade later, a still-functioning Opportunity on Mars. Counterintuitively, dust storms may limit the extreme temperature swings experienced on Mars.

In its lifetime, Opportunity has explored two craters on the red planet, Victoria and Endeavour, as well as found several signs of water.

'The rover has proved hardier than expected by lasting almost 15 years, despite being designed for a 90-day mission, ' the agency said. During southern summer, sunlight warms dust particles, lifting them higher into the atmosphere and creating more wind. This produces more wind, which kicks up even more dust, creating a feedback loop. But like the dust storm now battering Opportunity, the rover's mission ballooned from 3 months to 15 years, 14 of them on the Martian surface.

In an update on Sunday, June 10th, NASA offered some reassuring news, saying that Opportunity had managed to send a brief message home earlier in the day despite the increasing peril.

Scientists are anxious the rover won't survive this storm, but there's still hope. If the situation continues to worsen, the next step would be to suspend Opportunity's communications with Earth to save additional power. It's critical to the rover's survival - NASA believes its rover Spirit failed after it could not harvest enough sunlight to power its survival heaters. The rover needs to balance low levels of charge in its battery with sub-freezing temperatures.

"Engineers will monitor the rover's power levels closely in the week to come". Likewise, performing certain actions draws on battery power, but can actually expel energy and raise the rover's temperature.

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