NASA's Mars 'Opportunity' Rover May Be Lost in Massive Dust Storm

NASA's Mars 'Opportunity' Rover May Be Lost in Massive Dust Storm

Officials say they aren't sure how long it will last, or what the environment will be like once the storm clears.

NASA has had to put its power-starved Opportunity rover into an induced coma on Mars, but that drastic maneuver - plus some luck - should be enough to save it from one of the worst dust storms ever observed on the Red Planet.

Spirit and Opportunity found lots of such evidence, and they kept roving long after their warranties expired.

"The project team is very concerned", Callas told reporters, adding that a "spacecraft emergency" has been declared. However, the dust should warm the atmosphere and keep the rover above its minimum operating temperature.

Before the rover went silent, however, Opportunity sent one last image (featured image) to its handlers on Earth.

Opportunity's power levels had dropped significantly by June 6, requiring the rover to shift to minimal operations and later to temporarily suspend science operations.

An animation showing the dust storm, highlighted in an exaggerated red, expanding to cover most of Mars.

NASA has revealed that the storm is now covering about 41 million square kilometers (roughly 15.8 million square miles), in the conditions that the Mars surface is approximately 145 million square kilometers.

Controllers expect it will be several more days before there is enough sunlight to recharge Opportunity's battery through its solar panels.

When the storm struck, Opportunity was tooling around near a channel, carved in rim of crater, to see if it might have been created by flowing water, wind erosion, or something else. But there's a chance that Opportunity's camera optics could be degraded by the dust.

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Scientists consider this good news because the main threat that the rover now faces is death by freezing. "We're also going into the summer season so the rover will not get as cold as it would normally".

NASA scientists said the rover should start communicating again once the storm clears.

The storm has blocked out so much sunlight that it has effectively turned day into night for Opportunity, which is located near the centre of the storm, inside Mars' Perseverance Valley. "As we work to pave the way for when human explorers arrive, it will be essential that we learn to monitor and hopefully predict these storms in order to help ensure the safety of the crew". "The doctors are telling you that, 'OK, you've just got to give it time and she'll wake up".

"By no means are we out of the woods here", he says.

One complication, he said, is if the rover's power drops low enough that it can not operate an onboard clock.

Like all Martian spacecraft, Opportunity uses solar panels to keep its batteries charged. Mars Rover fell 25 January 2004.

Opportunity's twin, the Spirit rover, wasn't so lucky when it experienced a similar power drain in 2010.

But Opportunity, known to its many fans as "Oppy", remained in relatively good health and in February it marked its 5,000th Martian day, or sol, more than 14 years after landing. It also has one arthritic arm (NASA's term, not ours) and has lost some of its steering capacity.

It's not like a desert storm shifting large sand dunes, more like talcum powder lofted into atmosphere and distributed around the globe, said Jim Watzin, director of the Mars Exploration Program at NASA Headquarters.

The robotic vehicle - one of two now operating on Mars - has shut everything down except its master clock, and last communicated with Earth on June 10.

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