Nasa rover falls silent as very big dust storm envelops Mars

NASA news Mars Opportunity rover in storm

NASAMars sand storm The Opportunity rover is out of commission for the time being

Since last Wednesday, Opportunity has been operating in low-power mode, hunkering down and suspending all operations except for periodic system checks.

Scott Maxwell, a former Mars rover driver who led the team driving Opportunity and its twin Spirit for the first several years, says via email to Fortune, "I refuse to believe that anything can kill Opportunity-I half think she'll still be roving Mars when humans are forgotten!" Opportunity weathered a planet-wide storm in 2007.

Its mission was initially meant to last just 90 days. Retrieval from the clock snag is still possible but would take a long time, needing the aroused rover to set timers and penetrate a sleep-wake cycle until it catalogues that the Sun is up and it can and it can converse with Earth again. NASA's Curiosity rover has begun to see an increase in the atmospheric dust at its location in Gale Crater. "When the skies clear and the rover begins to power up, it should begin to communicate with us", Callas said, expressing confidence that Opportunity will not be buried in dust.

Another NASA rover called Curiosity, which arrived on Mars in 2012, does not face the same level of threat from the storm, which was detected on May 30.

Studying why these storms appear in some years but not others could help scientists better understand the red planet's past, and help them prepare for future exploration, he added. If power ever returns to an operational level, the rover will slowly bring itself back into service-or at least start communicating. They can quickly balloon into regional storms, and sometimes expand to engulf the entire planet.

"Local dust storms, similar to ones in the American Southwest or the Middle East for instance, can occur in any season on Mars but they typically grow to continental size only during the southern spring to summer when Mars is a little closer to the sun".

Before and after photos snapped a month apart by NASA's Mars Global Surveyor reveal the intensity of the raging storm.

The current storm above Opportunity, which is still growing, now blankets 14 million square miles (35 million square kilometers) of Martian surface - about a quarter of the planet.

There is no chance of Opportunity being buried or getting a wheel stuck in dust.

Meanwhile, "we're all pulling for Opportunity", Mars Exploration Program director Jim Watzin said. "Knowing and understanding how these storms behave ahead of more ambitious missions, it is essential that we learn to monitor and predict storms". The Martian atmosphere is so thin that while the wind can lift dust off the surface, it doesn't topple a spacecraft.

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