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NASA's Opportunity Rover Stalled By Dust Storm Bigger Than North America

Jun 10, 2018 11:12 PM EDT
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Mars Dust Storm
This global map of Mars shows a growing dust storm as of June 6. The map was produced by the Mars Color Imager (MARCI) camera on NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter spacecraft.
(Photo : NASA | JPL-Caltech | MSSS)

NASA's Opportunity rover on Mars is getting slammed by a continuously growing dust storm that's bigger than the entire North America continent.

The rover has been in operations for almost 15 years, but it is currently being challenged as it rides out this massive storm on the Red Planet. Science operations are currently suspended until further notice, but a recent transmission sent offers a positive sign for NASA engineers.

A Dark Storm Descends Over Opportunity

The dust storm, which NASA describes in a press release as "a dark, perpetual night," has blanketed over Mars' Perseverance Valley where the rover is currently planted.

Scientists from the agency initially detected it on Friday, June 1, but the storm expanded rapidly within just a few days. It currently extends over 7 million square miles, which is more than the size of North America.

The Opportunity rover runs on solar power, with the rover drawing from the sun to charge its batteries and, consequently, function on Mars. The dust storm is now posing a big threat to its operations by blotting out the sunlight.

Judging by its atmospheric opacity level or tau of 10.8, this is the worst storm that the Opportunity rover ever had to weather in terms of visibility. A previous storm in 2007 had a lower tau that's just over 5.5, despite covering the entire planet of Mars, Space.com recalls. This storm forced the rover to survive on minimal operations for two weeks.

NASA engineers will be monitoring the rover's conditions closely, since Opportunity will need to balance its depleted battery charge with the sub-freezing temperatures. While heating itself is crucial to keep the rover running, this process also drains its battery.

The team behind Opportunity has asked for extra communications coverage from the agency's Deep Space Network.

Opportunity Transmission Offers Silver Linings

Despite the increasingly intense dust storm spreading across the Red Planet, there is a silver lining for those monitoring Opportunity's journey. The rover was able to send a transmission signal to the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, indicating that it has ample battery charge left to communicate despite the dust blocking out the sunlight it needs to recharge.

This is a good sign considering the amplitude of the storm that the Opportunity rover is currently weathering. The latest transmission also revealed the rover's temperature conditions at minus 20 degrees Fahrenheit.

One of the positive effects of the dust storm is that it can keep the planet's temperature quite stable for the rover, reducing extreme temperature fluctuation in the Red Planet. The dust can block out sunlight, but it can also absorb heat and raise temperature around the rover.

Despite the power of the dust storm, it's worth pointing out that the Opportunity rover is a proven survivor, having long outlived its expiration date. While the rover is currently on its 15th year, the Opportunity was actually just designed for a 90-day mission.

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