Unprecedented Mars Dust Storm Might Have Killed the Opportunity Rover

A Powerful Dust Storm Has Darkened the Skies Over Opportunity on Mars

A Powerful Dust Storm Has Darkened the Skies Over Opportunity on Mars

The blue dot indicates the approximate location of Opportunity. First detected by NASA on June 1, the storm ballooned to more than 18 million square.km and included the Opportunity's current location at Perseverance Valley in the Red Planet by June 8.

On Wednesday, NASA said it would hold a press conference later in the day to update the world on both the progress of the dust storm and the status of the rover. That clock is programmed to wake the rover up periodically and check its power levels to see if it can call home. But beyond merely limiting the rover's operations, a prolonged dust storm also means that the rover might not be able to keep its energy-intensive survival heaters running - which protect its batteries from the extreme cold of Mars' atmosphere.

The Martian cold is believed to be what resulted in the loss of the Spirit rover in 2010, Opportunity's counterpart in the Mars Exploration Rover mission.

Whereas the previous storm had an opacity level (tau) of about 5.5, this new storm has an estimated tau of 10.8.

'This latest data transmission showed the rover's temperature to be about minus 20 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 29 degrees Celsius).

"If the rover's computer determines that its batteries don't have enough charge, it will again put itself back to sleep", NASA officials said.

"Full dust storms like this one are not surprising, but are infrequent", according to a NASA statement. "That wind kicks up yet more dust, creating a feedback loop that NASA scientists still seek to understand". "The same swirling dust that blocks out sunlight also absorbs heat, raising the ambient temperature surrounding Opportunity". "They can crop up suddenly but last weeks, even months".

However, it said that the rover has already proved hardier than expected by lasting almost 15 years - despite being designed for a 90-day mission. In the coming weeks, engineers at the JPL will continue to monitor the rover's power levels and ensure that it maintains the proper balance to keep its batteries in working order.

In the meantime, Opportunity's science operations remain suspended and the Opportunity team has requested additional communications coverage from NASA's Deep Space Network - the global system of antennas that communicates with all of the agency's deep space missions. And if there's one thing Opportunity has proven, it is that it's capable of enduring! At this rate, it could have many more years of life left in it!

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