NASA Rover knocked out as giant dust storm engulfs Mars

Jun 14, 2018, 16:00
NASA Rover knocked out as giant dust storm engulfs Mars

The storm has blocked out so much sunlight that it has effectively turned day into night for Opportunity, which is located near the centre of the storm, inside Mars' Perseverance Valley.

It's the most intense one NASA has seen in almost 20 years of observation.

A senior official there said: "It's like having a loved one in coma in the hospital". The doctors are telling you to give it time, and the vital signs are good.

"Having this dust storm occur under the visibility of the whole fleet of orbiters that we have, and eventually Curiosity participating in the research as well, is going to teach us a whole lot about how these storms behave", he added later in the briefing. "We're concerned, but we're hopeful that the storm will clear and the rover will begin to communicate with us", said Callas. "The storm, which was first detected on May 30, now blankets 14 million square miles (35 million square kilometers) of Martian surface - a quarter of the planet".

This is the area Opportunity has been observing in order to learn what created the valley, which is a channel carved in the rim by Endeavor Crater. Learning how it was formed could provide insight into the history of the Red Planet.

NASA engineers received a transmission from Opportunity on Sunday but no response when they attempted to contact it since.

In low-power fault mode, Opportunity's master clock is programmed to wake up the flight computer periodically to check the battery charge but if it's not sufficient, the computer will put itself back to sleep and the clock will set another alarm to wake it back up for another check.

Dust storms on Mars start with sunlight.

Its mission was initially meant to last just 90 days. Opportunity's team has also requested additional communications coverage from NASA's Deep Space Network - a global system of antennas that talks to all the agency's deep space probes. Right now, the rover is at about negative 20 degrees Fahrenheit.

Opportunity's scientific findings include evidence that Mars may have had conditions favourable for sustaining microbial life.

"So we should be able to ride out the storm", he told reporters. NASA's Martian rovers are vulnerable to such storms due to the way they harvest energy: from the Sun using solar panels.

It's not like a desert storm shifting large sand dunes, more like talcum powder lofted into atmosphere and distributed around the globe, said Jim Watzin, director of the Mars Exploration Program at NASA Headquarters. At most, it could endure for a month or two. Over time the dust clouds grow to encompass entire regions, and those regional storms can combine to form globe-engulfing weather events. This storm, Zurek said, should die out before that landing, although there is a chance a second storm could later form. One difference is that the storm intensified quickly: Callas said a 2007 storm took several weeks to reach an optical depth of 5.5, while this storm reached a higher optical depth in only a week.

Opportunity and Spirit have totally overhauled our understanding of Martian geology, revealing never-before-seen rocky features on Mars.

The storms' cyclical nature, however, are poorly understood.