NASA rover knocked out as gigantic dust storm envelopes Mars

The dark streak is from the impact destabilizing the ground.                  NASA  JPL  University of Arizona

The dark streak is from the impact destabilizing the ground. NASA JPL University of Arizona

NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter first detected the storm on June 1.

It's powered by sunlight, and the dust storm has blocked the rays.

"The project team is very concerned", said John Callas, the mission's project manager based at the nearby Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Opportunity has had a long life on Mars, putting in 15 years of service for the space agency.

One measure of the intensity of the dust storm is the optical depth of the atmopshere, with higher numbers representing more dust in the atmosphere.

This storm might prevent the robot ever again to contact Earth, writes The Verge. As Callas said during the call, "We're concerned, but we're hopeful that the storm will clear and the rover will begin to communicate to us".

"It's like you have a loved one in a coma in the hospital". The doctors are saying you've just got to give it time and she'll wake up. You just have to wait it out.

He added: "By no means are we out of the woods here". The last such major storm occurred in 2007, which sent NASA's rovers into a "hunker down" mode for several weeks before the skies cleared.

NASA engineers have not heard back from Opportunity rover that is caught in an unprecedented sandstorm on Mars, leading to speculation that it might be dead, the USA space agency has said.

The Opportunity rover was knocked out by the dust clouds as that has gripped the Red Planet. It now covers 15.8 million square miles, which is about the size of north America and Russian Federation combined.

Opportunity is now inside Mars' Perseverance Valley.

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It was trying to establish whether the valley had been sculpted by water or wind erosion, or both. Learning how it was formed could provide insight into the history of the Red Planet.

Created to work for just 90 days when it landed back in January 2004, Opportunity has managed to keep on rolling even though it does so now only in reverse and the arm that it uses to put instruments next to rocks to examine them is arthritic. By June 4, the storm was blocking out a significant part of the sunlight that powers the rover, causing NASA to reconfigure it for low-powered operations. "So [we were] trying to not only manage power consumption but manage the temperatures on the rover".

While the craft derives its energy from the sun, it's critical for it to charge its batteries fully enough to run heaters that keep components from failing in the cold, ironically including the batteries.

Calculations, however, revealed that Opportunity will not experience temperatures colder than minus 36 degrees Celsius in the foreseeable future.

"They are the finest batteries in the Solar System", Callas said during the press conference, a recording of which is below.

Although the rover needs solar energy, it has about 8 watts of thermal energy available in its insulated box.

This is assuming the rover is not too damaged following its exposure to the fierce dust storm.

There is ample reason to believe Opportunity will indeed wake up, NASA officials said. Over the past week, as mission managers saw that the storm was turning into a monster, they programmed Opportunity to deal with what Callas saw as an emergency situation. At most, it could endure for a month or two.

Opportunity's handlers will be sweating out the rover's slumber, no matter how long it lasts. Over time the dust clouds grow to encompass entire regions, and those regional storms can combine to form globe-engulfing weather events.

Another positive is the rare chance to study this storm. Several days have passed and the storm still rages on.

Scientists consider this good news because the main threat that the rover now faces is death by freezing. "Knowing and understanding how these storms behave ahead of more ambitious missions, it is essential that we learn to monitor and predict storms". Its longevity has taught us much about operating on Mars.

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