Mars rover falls silent in gigantic dust storm

Mars map

NASA's seemingly-unstoppable Mars rover Opportunity has been knocked out by a enormous dust storm that is enveloping the red planet and blotting out the sun. At left, the sun appears blindingly bright but darkens as the dust storm intensifies. Tau is a measure of the atmosphere's opacity - that is, its lack of transparency.

NASA's long-lived Opportunity Mars rover is hunkering down to conserve power in a bid to weather a huge dust storm blanketing the red planet that has, in effect, turned day into night for the solar-powered robot.

All flight controllers can do is wait for the storm to pass and the sky to clear, officials said, and hope Opportunity calls home.

"By no means are we out of the woods here", Opportunity project manager John Callas said. "And we're concerned about it, obviously. And so we are".

A NASA rover on Mars has fallen silent as a big dust storm envelops the planet and blots out the sun. If enough dust covers the solar panels of the aging robot, Opportunity could be in danger, as scientists have said in the past. However, still science operations remain suspended, the report said. The rover was only created to last 90 days but has vastly exceeded expectation, and is now in its 14 year on the Martian surface.

In an update posted on June 12, NASA said that its Opportunity team had attempted to contact the rover but, unfortunately, didn't get a response back.

In 2007, a planetwide dust storm blotted out the sun for two weeks. "The rover hits a steady-state temperature", NASA's Jim Watson told reporters, "at which point there's a balance between what little energy is coming out of the rover and what's lost to the environment".

"We're in waiting mode, listening every day for a signal".

Artist's concept of the Opportunity rover on Mars.

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But without the clock, Opportunity would not know what time it is. The rover's mission clock is programmed to wake the computer so it can check power levels.

Concerns include whether Opportunity will stay above its operating temperature, as well as whether the charge level will stay adequate enough to maintain the aforementioned mission clock. It relies on radioisotope thermoelectric generator (RTGs): plutonium-powered devices that convert the heat of radioactive decay into electricity.

If the dust storm continues at this rate, the rover won't be able to charge for the next few days and will put itself back to sleep. This latest transmission also showed that the rover's temperature had reached about -29 °C (-20 °F). "We're concerned, but we're hopeful that the storm will clear and the rover will begin to communicate with us".

In 2010, Opportunity's twin Spirit suffered that exact fate, freezing to death after getting stuck in thick sand. Without them, there's a chance that Opportunity could drop below the temperature at which critical components would fail.

There is a risk that Opportunity will get too cold as it struggles to power its internal heaters, which protect its batteries from Mars' extreme cold.

Spirit has not worked for several years.

This is one of the most intense storms ever observed on Mars, NASA said.

Scientists aren't almost as concerned about the newer, nuclear-powered Curiosity rover on the other side of Mars, which is already seeing darkening skies.

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