NASA’s Opportunity rover expected to restart as dust storm clears on Mars

It's possible the dust storm caused damage.

The 15-year-old robot relies entirely on energy from the Sun to power its operations on Mars, but the monstrous dust storm has cut its mission short. In subsequent Opportunity mission updates, JPL said that tau was decreasing, but did not give a specific figure.

Opportunity Project Manager John Callas said the sun was starting to reappear through the storm haze over Perserverance Valley, giving scientists hope that there will soon be sufficient sunlight to rechage the rover's batteries.

"When the tau level dips below 1.5, we will begin a period of actively attempting to communicate with the rover by sending it commands via antennas of NASA's Deep Space Network". If the team doesn't hear back from Opportunity during that period of time, the space agency will assume that something has impacted the rover in a way that prevents its recovery.

Questions abound about the rover's status and whether or not it can wake from its slumber since the Martian skies darkened with dust.

The rover's last communication with Earth was received on June 10, and Opportunity's current health is unknown, Nasa said. The good news is no dust storms are brewing within 1,900 miles of Opportunity according to MRO Project Scientist Rich Zurek. Zurek said in the statement that there had been no signs of dust storms within 3,000 kilometers of Opportunity "for some time".

"At that point our active phase of reaching out to Opportunity will be at an end", Callas notes.

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Opportunity's tracks on Mars in 2017. Toward the right side of this scene is a broad notch in the crest of the western rim of crater. His career includes working for NASA, Astrogeology Headquarters of the United States Geological Survey, the Mars Spaceflight Facility located at Arizona State University and the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory located at the University of Arizona.

The additional several months for passive listening are an allowance for the possibility that a Red Planet dust devil could come along and literally dust off Opportunity's solar arrays. If that's the reason Opportunity isn't responding, then there's a chance - a slim chance - that a dust devil may fix that. If that's the case, it will take time for Mars's winds to clear off the solar panels enough for Opportunity to recharge and be open to receiving signals.

Scientists haven't traded messages with Opportunity since June 10.

The high resolution camera called HiRISE (High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment) onboard NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter attempted to image our rover about two weeks ago but was unsuccessful because there was still to much dust suspended in the planet's atmosphere.

And even though it is hobbled, having lost the use of its front steering and 256MB flash memory, not everyone is ready to give up so fast. The probe was created to travel just 1km, but in its many years of service it has managed to log more than 45km. Engineers were hopeful that when the dust began to settle, the rover would spring back to life, but that just hasn't happened yet.

"In a situation like this you hope for the best but plan for all eventualities", added Callas. "We are pulling for our tenacious rover to pull her feet from the fire one more time". When can we expect to hear from it again?

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