NASA’s Opportunity rover expected to restart as dust storm clears on Mars

NASA eager to hear from Mars rover as dust storm clears

NASA eager to hear from Mars rover as dust storm clears

The team managing Opportunity rover has already started preparing for the dust storm's end.

It's now been 82 days since we last heard from Opportunity, but with news that the storm is finally abating, the engineers at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, will soon begin the process of reviving the beleaguered six-wheeled rover. At the time contact was lost with Opportunity in early June, tau has risen to 10.8, a record high value that indicated that the sun was nearly completely obscured by the dust storm.

"There are likely going to be three overlapping fault modes on the vehicle: low power fault, the uploss timer fault, because we've gone so long in communicating with the vehicle, and mission clock fault", said John Callas project manager of NASA's Mars Exploration Rover.

However, "passive listening efforts will continue for several months", Callas said, because of the "unlikely chance that there is a large amount of dust sitting on the solar arrays that is blocking the Sun's energy".

The high resolution camera called HiRISE (High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment) onboard NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter attempted to image our rover about two weeks ago but was unsuccessful because there was still to much dust suspended in the planet's atmosphere.

If Opportunity's batteries receive enough sunlight, the robot will automatically initiate is recovery procedures.

The impact of the latest storm on Opportunity's systems is unknown but could have resulted in reduced energy production, diminished battery performance, or other unforeseen damage that could make it hard for the rover to fully return online, NASA noted. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell/Arizona State Univ.

"Images of the Opportunity site have shown no active dust storms for some time within 3,000 kilometers [about 1,900 miles] of the rover site". If 45 days have passed without a response, the team will cease its active efforts to recover the rover. If that's the case, it will take time for Mars's winds to clear off the solar panels enough for Opportunity to recharge and be open to receiving signals.

Even if the team hears back from Opportunity during either phase, there is no assurance the rover will be operational.

The chances are small that dust accumulation would be the root cause of Opportunity's lack of communication.

While the situation in Perseverance Valley is critical, the rover team is cautiously optimistic, knowing that Opportunity has overcome significant challenges during its 14-plus years on Mars. Its 256-megabyte flash memory no longer works and it front steering gave out back in June 2017.

The scientists and engineers have been known to anthropomorphise the Mars rovers and some have been working with Opportunity, which has been on Mars since 2004, for years.

"This is the worst storm Opportunity has ever seen, and we're doing what we can, crossing our fingers, and hoping for the best", said Steve Squyres, a planetary scientist at Cornell University and leader of the rover mission, in a recent Planetary Society blog. "We are pulling for our tenacious rover to pull her feet from the fire one more time". We'll all be waiting to see what happens next.

In its statement, NASA did not publish an updated value of tau.

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