Giant Martian Dust Storm Threatens Opportunity Rover

NASA's Mars Opportunity rover hits another giant dust storm It may not be able to communicate for a while

The map was produced by the Mars Color Imager (MARCI) camera on NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter spacecraft. It is one of the largest storms that the rover has had to encounter and there are chances that the rover could become too cold to continue with its experiments. 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. It has covered Perseverance Valley, where Opportunity is now located, and has blotted out the sunlight. "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." reads the release.

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

Dust storms are infrequent on Mars, but they do arise from time to time. Faced with dwindling power reserves and no recharge in sight, the JPL team running the rover opted to put it into minimal operations mode. Back in 2007, Opportunity came through a two-week storm unscathed.

While Green is confident that humankind will get to Mars within a couple of decades - NASA's target is 2040 - he explains that there are now significant obstacles to reaching this goal.

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According to NASA, the present storm was detected by the space agency's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) on June 1.

The main concern NASA has with this kind of tempest is that the rover's batteries will get too cold and it won't be able to function once the dust storm ends. "The rover needs to balance low levels of charge in its battery with sub-freezing temperatures". The team handling the operations thought it won't be able to maintain a balance between low power and energy-intensive heaters created to protect its batteries from the Martian cold. "They can crop up suddenly but last weeks, even months", said NASA's officials. Without the heaters, the rover's batteries would likely fail and doom the mission. The small blue dot in the below image of the storm (click to enlarge) indicates Opportunity's location in Perseverance Valley. Despite this, both rovers have vastly exceeded expectations: they were only created to last 90 days each. During summer in the south, the Sun warms dust particles, causing them to rise up higher into the sky.

The rover (and its twin Spirit) launched separately to Mars in 2003 and landed in January 2004 for what was originally scheduled to be a 90-day mission. The updrafts of dust can trigger more winds, triggering a feedback loop that fuels the birth of a dust storm.

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