Nasa rover falls silent as gigantic dust storm envelops Mars

14 June, 2018, 08:27 | Author: Kelly Sanders
  • Nasa's brave Mars Rover could be killed by massive Martian dust storm

THE NASA rover "Opportunity", which is stationed on Mars, has fallen silent as a huge dust storm enveloped the Red Planet in the past 24 hours. At left, the sun appears blindingly bright but darkens as the dust storm intensifies. In 2007, just a few years into its extended mission, a planetary dust storm blocked the sun for two weeks, during which time the craft stopped responding as well. Tau is a measure of the atmosphere's opacity - that is, its lack of transparency.

"By no means are we out of the woods here", said John Callas, the Opportunity project manager at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. "And we're concerned about it, obviously. And so we are".

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.

The mission clock will trigger the computer to turn back on to check power levels sporadically, NASA said.

On Tuesday, NASA's attempt to make contact with the rover failed, suggesting the battery level had finally dipped below 24 volts. "The current dust storm is providing us with an unprecedented opportunity to learn more about Mars and the many challenges it presents for exploration", said Jim Watzin, director of the Mars Exploration Program at NASA Headquarters.

Mars experiences regional dust storms annually, but only occasionally do they expand to engulf the entire planet.

The US space agency's rover runs on solar power and has entered low power mode to conserve energy.

When can we expect to hear from the rover again?

In this point we are in a waiting mode.

Mars is not a friendly place to be right now, especially if you're an aging solar-powered rover. And without that clock and sufficient power, it will never be able to signal Earth.

"Our expectation at this point is that the rover has gone to sleep". But without the clock, some of these timers will wake it at night, and NASA won't know in advance when it will try to communicate. However, the dust should warm the atmosphere and keep the rover above its minimum operating temperature. It relies on radioisotope thermoelectric generator (RTGs): plutonium-powered devices that convert the heat of radioactive decay into electricity. And the Opportunity rover is in the middle of it. "We're also going into the summer season, and so the rover will not get as cold as it would normally. When the skies clear and the rover begins to power up, it should begin to communicate with us".

A self-portrait of NASA's Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity, in 2014.

Opportunity and Spirit have totally overhauled our understanding of Martian geology, revealing never-before-seen rocky features on Mars. And so it went, to everyone's ongoing amazement. Spirit sent data until March 2010, when it became lodged in sand and NASA was unable to extricate it.

But Opportunity, known to its many fans as "Oppy", remained in relatively good health and in February it marked its 5,000th Martian day, or sol, more than 14 years after landing.

Spirit kept functioning until it got stuck in 2009 and stopped communications the next year.

Viking 1 images of the 1977 Mars dust storm.

"The storm is one of the most intense ever observed on the Red Planet", NASA said in a press release.



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