Saturday, 18 August, 2018

NASA rover knocked out as huge dust storm envelops Mars

A Powerful Dust Storm Has Darkened the Skies Over Opportunity on Mars Intense Mars dust storm puts Opportunity rover in jeopardy
Cary Marshall | 14 June, 2018, 03:16

"And so we are". In the past two weeks, it's grown to cover a quarter of the planet's surface.

Viking 1 images of the 1977 Mars dust storm.

In the meantime, Opportunity's science operations remain suspended and the Opportunity team has requested additional communications coverage from NASA's Deep Space Network - the global system of antennas that communicates with all of the agency's deep space missions.

The solar-powered Opportunity rover landed on Mars in 2004 and was supposed to last 90 days, though it has operated for more than 14 years.

Last night Nasa detailed how a real example of such a huge natural event left their solar-powered rover Opportunity uncontactable and in danger.

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. The previous storm had an opacity level, or tau, somewhere above 5.5; this new storm had an estimated tau of 10.8 as of morning on June 10.

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

If the batteries are insufficiently charged, the computer will again enter a sleep mode, the same mode used each night to power down the rover.

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"At that point, the rover will autonomously try to wake up and communicate with us". "At this point, we're in a waiting mode". And the Opportunity rover is in the middle of it.

The mission clock will trigger the computer to turn back on to check power levels sporadically, NASA said. Callas said that, on June 2, Opportunity measured an optical depth of 0.6, which is normal for this time of year, and the rover was generating 645 watt-hours.

The most recent transmission from Opportunity "showed the rover's temperature to be about minus 20 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 29 degrees Celsius)", NASA said in a status report. Callas said the rover is equipped with eight one-watt plutonium heat sources and simulations indicate it should be able to withstand the lowest expected temperatures without major damage.

"In a couple of days we should hit that steady-state point and we should be able to sit there for an extended period of time", Callas said.

The storm that's causing the problems was first noted at the end of May, when it showed up in images taken by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. We're also going into the summer season, and so the rover will not get as cold as it would normally.

People working with the rover have also become attached to it over the years, so even if things are looking okay, it's still a scary prospect that this rover is alone and unable to phone home on Mars. "We're concerned but we're hopeful that the storm will clear and the rover will begin to communicate to us".

Launched from Cape Canaveral on July 7, 2003, Opportunity landed on the red planet five-and-a-half months later, on January 24, 2004, three weeks after a twin rover, Spirit, bounced to an airbag-cushioned landing on the other side of the planet.

Watzin and Zurek also said they didn't expect the storm to affect NASA's InSight Mars lander, launched May 5 and scheduled to land on November 26. Although the rover now steers with two wheels instead of four and one of its arm joints is a bit creaky, it's currently exploring Perseverance Valley, a feature carved into the rim of Endeavor Crater.

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