News – Intense Mars dust storm puts Opportunity rover in jeopardy

News – Intense Mars dust storm puts Opportunity rover in jeopardy

June 13, 2018 0 By news club

OUT OF THIS WORLD | What’s Up In Space – a weekly look at the biggest news coming down to Earth from space

Scott Sutherland
Meteorologist/Science Writer

Wednesday, June 13, 2018, 11:58 AM – NASA’s Opportunity rover is in jeopardy right now, as an immense dust storm now blankets its location on Mars, cutting off the rover’s power supply and causing it to lose contact with Earth.

Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity has been delivering science from the surface of the Red Planet for over 14 years now – an amazing accomplishment for a robot that was only intended for an initial 90 day mission. The rover has set a number of records during this time, including distance driven on another solar system body (beating out Russia’s Lunakhov 2 rover on the Moon), and it just set a new one… one that might cost it, dearly.

Right now, the vast plain Opportunity is exploring – Meridiani Planum – is blanketed in the most intense dust storm that NASA scientists have ever witnessed.

The views from Opportunity’s cameras have shown the sky filling with dust over the past two weeks. The final frame, on the right, is a simulation based on the rover’s data. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/TAMU

The image above shows progressive views from Opportunity’s mastcam, as the dust storm intensified since it was first spotted on May 30, 2018. By now, two weeks later, the dust storm is almost completely blotting out the Sun!

Losing the Sun has serious consequences for this solar powered robot.

Up until June 11, according to MER team member Keri Bean, Opportunity was still beeping back at NASA, to let them know that it was doing fine, despite the dust. 

However, without enough light reaching its solar panels, Opportunity has apparently powered down, now, as the team announced in a late June 12 update:

NASA engineers attempted to contact the Opportunity rover today but did not hear back from the nearly 15-year old rover. The team is now operating under the assumption that the charge in Opportunity’s batteries has dipped below 24 volts and the rover has entered low power fault mode, a condition where all subsystems, except a mission clock, are turned off. The rover’s mission clock is programmed to wake the computer so it can check power levels.

If the rover’s computer determines that its batteries don’t have enough charge, it will again put itself back to sleep. Due to an extreme amount of dust over Perseverance Valley, mission engineers believe it is unlikely the rover has enough sunlight to charge back up for at least the next several days.

Opportunity needs enough power to not only rove the planet and gather science data to send back to Earth, but also to keep its instruments and computers warm during the cold Martian nights. Temperatures on the night side of the planet can dip as low as -80°C even near the equator, where Opportunity is.

There is one benefit of all the dust, however, as Bean pointed out in a tweet on Tuesday:

The latest record Opportunity set? According to Bean, this is the highest “tau” value that has ever been recorded for a Mars dust storm! Tau is a measure of the atmosphere’s opacity – that is, its lack of transparency.

The previous highest tau value was 9, recorded by the Viking 1 lander, in 1977.

Viking 1 images of the 1977 Mars dust storm. The left image shows a tau opacity of 1. The right image shows a tau opacity of between 5 and 6. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Olivier de Goursac/The Planetary Society

As of June 12, the tau value for Opportunity’s dust storm was estimated at nearly 11!

While the insulating factor of the dust will likely keep Opportunity’s instruments from suffering damage from the cold, there is one very serious ramification of this storm.

Once it passes, the storm may leave Opportunity’s solar panels covered in a thick layer of dust, such that the rover won’t be able to gather enough power to recover.

NASA is hosting a livestreamed teleconference at 1:30 p.m. EDT, on June 13, to answer questions about the rover and this dust storm. Watch via the embedded video below:

Sources: NASAKeri Bean | The Planetary Society

Watch Below: RAW Opportunity: A Rover’s-Eye View of Marathon on Mars

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