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NASA engineers hope Opportunity rover will sleep through continent-sized dust storm on Mars

This low-angle self-portrait of NASA's Curiosity Mars rover shows the vehicle at the site from which it reached down to drill into a rock target called "Buckskin" on lower Mount Sharp. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS)

NASA’s Opportunity rover is incommunicado after being hit by a severe, continent-scale dust storm on Mars, space agency officials said Wednesday — and they’re not sure exactly when they’ll hear from it again.

Officials say the rover has probably fallen asleep after being unable to generate enough energy from its solar panels due to the dust-darkened skies.

“The project team is very concerned,” said John Callas, the mission’s project manager based at the nearby Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “We’re watching the weather and we’re listening to the Deep Space Network for signals.”

Mission officials first got word that a storm could be headed toward the rover at the start of June. Within a few days, the rover’s view was growing dimmer and its solar panels were generating less and less energy.

By June 6, the rover was put into a temporary power-saving mode, one that would save energy but provide just enough activity to keep the rover warm. A similar routine was used two days later.

By Sunday, Curiosity’s view of Mars was completely dark.

The good news is that Mars is headed into its summer season, which means that temperatures should not dip low enough to threaten the rover’s systems, mission officials said. Once the storm clears and enough sunlight hits its solar panels, it should be able to wake up and make contact again.

Still, Callas said the team was concerned about the aging rover as it faced this enormous storm, which could grow to fully envelop the planet in two to three more days. Having spent more than 14 years on the red planet, Opportunity has far outlived its planned 90-day mission.

“This team has a very strong bond with the rover,” Callas said, comparing the machine to an elderly family member in the hospital.

“The doctors are telling you that, ‘OK, you’ve just got to give it time and she’ll wake up, all the vital signs are good,’ so it’s just waiting it out,” he said. “But if it’s your 97-year-old grandmother, you’re going to be very concerned.”

The storm has already covered 14 million square miles on Mars — roughly a quarter of the planet’s surface — and it’s still growing, officials said.

While dust storms can occur just about any time of year, they typically grow to continental size during the Southern Hemisphere’s spring and summer. But those giant events don’t occur often, and storms that can grow to global proportions are even rarer.

Officials say they aren’t sure how long it will last, or what the environment will be like once the storm clears. But the event does provide a chance for the rover and its NASA compatriots — including the Curiosity rover, Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, Odyssey satellite and MAVEN mission — to study such a massive storm.

“Each observation of these large storms brings us closer to being able to model these events and perhaps even one day to forecast them,” said Richard Zurek, chief scientist of the Mars Program Office at Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “This would be like forecasting El Nino events on Earth, or the severity of upcoming hurricane seasons.”

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.


© 2018 Los Angeles Times

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