by Elton Gomes
A dust storm on Mars is threatening the future of NASA’s Opportunity rover, which is the longest-lived robot on the Red planet. The golf-cart-size vehicle was launched toward Mars in June 2003; the craft landed in January 2004, and was supposed to last three months there.
The rover completed 15 years on August 26 on the Red planet and has roamed hundred’s of miles across Mars using solar power. However, Opportunity was in trouble due to the long-lasting global dust storm that has been ongoing for nearly two months now. Due to the dust storm, Opportunity has reportedly fallen asleep on June 10 and has not phoned home since.
Such global dust storms are fairly common on Mars and are known to cover the planet in a dull-red haze, but NASA said that this was “one of the most intense” ever recorded. “This is the worst storm Opportunity has ever seen, and we’re doing what we can, crossing our fingers, and hoping for the best,” Steve Squyres, a planetary scientist at Cornell University and leader of the rover mission, said in blog post for the Planetary Society, Business Insider reported.
On June 13, the Independent reported that Opportunity was facing all sorts of problems after a storm, which engulfed a quarter of the planet, swept over the rover. The storm blocked the Sun’s light, due to which Opportunity was unable to charge its batteries. The rover had therefore gone into a shutdown mode and all of its systems went offline.
If the rover doesn’t find sufficient energy in its batteries, its systems will shut back again. If the systems stay off, the batteries could freeze and shut the rover down forever. Furthermore, engineers do not expect the storm to clear and the batteries to be charged.
Experts, however, claimed that Opportunity isn’t dead yet. In a briefing on June 13, NASA officials said that the rover is in a deep sleep and could wake itself up once the storm ends. “When the skies clear and the rover begins to power up, it should be able to communicate with us,” John Callas, Opportunity’s project manager, said, Science News reported.
Engineers are constantly trying to communicate with the rover several times in a week using NASA’s Deep Space Network. They tried contacting the robot during scheduled “wake-up times” and waited for a response. Additionally, NASA’s team members sift through all radio signals from Mars to spot any opportunity of contact.
However, even if the rover does eventually wake up, its long ordeal could be tiresome. “The rover’s batteries could have discharged so much power — and stayed inactive so long — that their capacity is reduced,” NASA officials wrote in the update. The added, “If those batteries can’t hold as much charge, it could affect the rover’s continued operations. It could also mean that energy-draining behavior, like running its heaters during winter, could cause the batteries to brown out,” as per a report in Space.com.
Elton Gomes is a staff writer at Qrius.
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