NASA’s Opportunity Rover wasn’t even designed to make it through a dust storm. Why would it have been? The team designed the rover to last for its 90-day mission. A mission planned to avoid Mars’ dust storm season. Nearly 15 years later and Opportunity is still kicking on the red planet’s surface. And we’re about to see if the hardy rover can live up to its reputation.
Right now, a vast Martian dust storm is tossing massive amounts of dust into Mars’ atmosphere. And Opportunity is stuck in the middle of it. NASA put together a simulated view of what the Martian sky looks like from the rover.
Each frame above represents a tau value, a measurement of opacity. The values from left to right 1, 3, 5, 7, 9, 11. The current tau level (as of June 10) is estimated to be 10.8.
On June 10, NASA engineers received a signal from Opportunity. Data in the signal told engineers Opportunity had enough juice in its battery to keep communicating with Earth.
But on June 12, Opportunity went silent. The team believes the rover is now operating in low power fault mode. All subsystems are off, except a mission clock. This mission clock wakes the computer periodically to check power levels. If the batteries are still low, Opportunity will go back to sleep. Right now, the rover’s engineer team believes it’ll be at least a few more days before there’s enough sunlight for the rover’s solar panels to charge its batteries.
Will Opportunity make it?
There is one reason to be optimistic. Opportunity has been in this situation before. In 2007, a large dust storm blanketed Mars’ skies above the rover. For two weeks, Opportunity saw minimal operations, and there were even several days where the mission team didn’t hear from it. But the tough rover pushed through. Despite low power levels, the rover managed to keep its battery heaters running to protect it from Mars’ brutal cold.
But Opportunity is facing challenges. It’s nearly ten years older this go around. Plus, the current dust storm is believed to be more intense. During the 2007 storm, the tau level was somewhere above 5.5. That’s around the third frame in the image above. As of Sunday (June 10), the tau level was estimated to be nearly 11.
Every day that goes by with no word from Opportunity means the batteries charge continues to dwindle. But if this is how Opportunity goes out, it still had one hell of a mission.
What about the Curiosity rover?
Two things are working in favor of Curiosity. First, it’s not as close to the dust storm as Opportunity. And more importantly, Curiosity doesn’t use solar panels for power. A nuclear-powered battery means the lack of sunlight wouldn’t be a problem.
Good news for science
While Opportunity is struggling, the current dust storm couldn’t be better for the missions orbiting the red planet. “This is the ideal storm for Mars science,” said Jim Watzin, director of NASA’s Mars Exploration Program. “We have a historic number of spacecraft operating at the Red Planet. Each offers a unique look at how dust storms form and behave — knowledge that will be essential for future robotic and human missions.”
Here’s an infographic showing how the missions on Mars (and above) will look at the massive dust storm.
I’ll keep this article updated as we hear from NASA on Opportunity’s fate.