NASA rover falls silent as gigantic dust storm envelops Mars

Mars in 2001 as it typically appeared and how the red planet looked after a global dust storm appeared .       NASA  JPL-Caltech  MSSS

Mars in 2001 as it typically appeared and how the red planet looked after a global dust storm appeared . NASA JPL-Caltech MSSS

The pictures show what the sun and sky look like during the brightest time of the day, and they're based on real photos taken by the rover.

Watzin said that the main instruments used to guide InSight for a landing, an inertial measurement unit and radar, wouldn't be adversely affected by dust if a storm is taking place.

A vast dust storm larger than the entire North American continent is now raging on Mars-and it has forced NASA to suspend the scientific operations of its Opportunity rover.

Controllers expect it will be several more days before there's enough sunlight to recharge Opportunity's battery through its solar panels.

"This team has a very strong bond with the rover, a very tight emotional connection with it", said John Callas, Opportunity project manager at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. "And we're concerned about it, obviously".

"It's like you have a loved one in a coma in the hospital. And so we are". First detected by NASA on June 1, the storm ballooned to more than 18 million and included the Opportunity's current location at Perseverance Valley in the Red Planet by June 8.

This time, the rover's energy level is believed to be much lower. The solar-powered Opportunity has therefore temporarily ceased science operations.

NASA engineers attempted to contact the Opportunity rover today but did not hear back from the almost 15-year old rover.

NASA described the dust storm enveloping Opportunity and now extending across much of Mars as "unprecedented", although it is not yet a globe-spanning storm like some in the past.

Whereas the previous storm had an opacity level (tau) of about 5.5, this new storm has an estimated tau of 10.8.

Nasa said the battery is likely so low that only a clock is still working, to wake the spacecraft for periodic power-level checks.

"At this point, we're in a waiting mode, listening every day for possible signals", he said. In the middle of the chaos: the little Opportunity rover.

The mission clock will trigger the computer to turn back on to check power levels sporadically, NASA said. In that case, the computer is programmed to periodically check to see if the sun is up and if so, to phone home.

The latest data transmission showed the rover's temperature to be about minus 20 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 29 degrees Celsius). Besides electrical heaters, Opportunity is equipped with eight tiny plutonium-powered heaters.

"Because the rover's not active, it will be getting colder", Callas said. One of the principal objectives of NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, one of three USA satellites tasked with analyzing the planet, is to enhance our understanding of Martian meteorology. "We're concerned, but we're hopeful that the storm will clear and the rover will begin to communicate with us", said Callas.

The space agency launched the twin rovers Opportunity and Spirit in 2003 to study Martian rocks and soil.

Opportunity (and Spirit) landed on the Red Planet in January 2004. 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. And so it went, to everyone's ongoing amazement.

But Opportunity has survived adverse weather events in the past. Even in the worst of storms, only a layer of fine dust is left behind. But Opportunity has never faced anything as formidable as the current dust storm on Mars. "They can crop up suddenly but last weeks, even months". During southern summer, sunlight warms dust particles, lifting them higher into the atmosphere and creating more wind. That wind kicks up yet more dust, creating a feedback loop that NASA scientists are still trying to understand.

"Full dust storms like this one are not surprising, but are infrequent", according to a NASA statement.

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