NASA rover knocked out as gigantic dust storm envelops Mars

NASA rover knocked out as gigantic dust storm envelops Mars

An vast dust storm that may soon encircle Mars is threatening one of NASA's rovers on the planet's surface, with the vehicle becoming dormant and unresponsive at a site called Perseverance Valley, U.S. space agency officials said on Wednesday.

That doesn't mean everything's cool at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., which has overseen the rover's work on Mars for almost 15 years.

"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. "The doctors are telling you that, 'OK, you've just got to give it time and she'll wake up".

"The team has a strong bond and tight emotional connection with the rover", Callas said. "And so we are". But if it's your 97-year-old grandmother, you're going to be very concerned.

This series of simulated Mars rover Opportunity images shows how conditions have changed around the NASA rover as a huge dust storm has intensified (from left to right) throughout June 2018.

As of June 12, the tau value for Opportunity's dust storm was estimated at almost 11! NASA had only intended the rover to operate for a 90-day mission, something it has exceeded by more than a decade.

Eight plutonium-powered heating units will provide an extra margin of safety, ensuring that the electronics stay warm enough to function.

From the perspective of NASA's long-lived Opportunity rover on Mars, the sky is almost black in the middle of the day.

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Scientists are not almost as concerned about the newer, nuclear-powered Curiosity rover on the other side of Mars, which is already seeing darkening skies.

In the meantime, Opportunity's science operations remain suspended and the Opportunity team has requested additional communications coverage from NASA's Deep Space Network - the global system of antennas that communicates with all of the agency's deep space missions.

"In a couple of days we should hit that steady-state point and we should be able to sit there for an extended period of time", Callas said. "I wish my mobile phone had one that was as good".

A massive dust storm has hit Mars, and NASA's Opportunity rover is right in the middle of it. Dust storms reduce the rover's access to sunlight and therefore its ability to charge.

The master clock is programmed to wake up the flight computer periodically to check the battery charge and, if sufficient, to attempt contact with Earth.

If the computer finds that power levels are good, it will command the rover to get in touch with engineers back on Earth, but if not, it'll put the rover back to sleep again to wait out the storm. The rover would then be forced to use a more basic survival mode.

Opportunity would normally be able to generate over 600 watt-hours of energy per day with its panels at this time of the Martian year - which at its station is entering the northern hemisphere summer.

Controllers expect it will be several more days before there is enough sunlight to recharge Opportunity's battery through its solar panels. 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. "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. But Zurek said the darkness can last only so long.

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