NASA's Opportunity rover falls silent

NASA's Opportunity rover falls silent

NASA's Opportunity Mars rover, 14 years past its original 90-day design life, has dropped out of contact with Earth after powering down everything but its master clock in a bid to weather a huge dust storm that is blotting out the sun, preventing the solar-powered rover from recharging its batteries, mission managers said Wednesday. The storm could actually become a global tempest in the days to come, according to NASA. The storm was detected on May 30 and now fully blocks the sun at the rover's location, leaving the craft in total darkness.

"We think we can ride this out for a while".

A saving grace about these storms is that they limit the extreme temperature swings, and the dust they kick up can also absorb solar radiation, thus raising ambient temperatures around Opportunity.

This is not the first major dust storm weathered by Opportunity, which landed on the Red Planet in January 2004: An even larger storm forced the rover to stand down for two weeks in 2007. Opportunity, however, has kept exploring well past its expected mission lifetime. The solar-powered rover has been in operation for almost 15 years - but if its batteries dip below 24 volts of electrical charge, it's programmed to put almost all its systems into sleep mode and wait until the batteries are sufficiently charged up. The rover's mission clock is programmed to wake the computer so it can check power levels.

"Our expectation at this point is that the rover has gone to sleep, it's in this low-power mode and it will remain in that low power mode until there's sufficient energy to charge the batteries back above a certain threshold", Callas said. "This storm is threatening, and we don't know how long it will last, and we don't know what the environment will be like once it clears".

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.

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Opportunity beamed a message to its handlers on Sunday (June 10), which is a good sign; it shows the rover still has a decent amount of battery power left.

A senior official there said: "It's like having a loved one in coma in the hospital. By no means are we out of the wood here". NASA's other active Mars rover, Curiosity, is better able to cope with the darkening storm because its power comes from a plutonium-fueled generator.

Opportunity has lived an wonderful life on Mars. Both rovers vastly exceeded expectations and while Spirit, which got stuck in a sand dune, went off line in 2010, Opportunity continues to return valuable science.

Opportunity and Spirit have totally overhauled our understanding of Martian geology, revealing never-before-seen rocky features on Mars. Imaging from orbit suggested that the valley may have been cut by flowing water, and the rover is being sent to look for evidence of that.

Both rovers were only created to function on Mars for about 90 days, but both outlived that estimate by leaps and bounds.

While the insulating factor of the dust will likely keep Opportunity's instruments from suffering damage from the cold, there is one very serious ramification of this storm.

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