Published: Thu, June 14, 2018
Sci-tech | By April Francis

Huge Mars Dust Storm Could Mean Loss of a NASA Rover

Huge Mars Dust Storm Could Mean Loss of a NASA Rover

A NASA rover on Mars has fallen silent as a very big dust storm envelops the planet and blots out the sun.

The rover "has made a number of discoveries about the Red Planet including dramatic evidence that long ago at least one area of Mars stayed wet for an extended period and that conditions could have been suitable for sustaining microbial life", NASA said in a statement.

NASA's Opportunity rover's science operations have been temporarily suspended as it waits out a growing dust storm on Mars, the United States space agency said in a statement.

Experts said the dust storm is not likely to endanger NASA's InSight mission, which launched earlier this year and is scheduled to land in November, on a mission to study quakes on Mars.

NASA's Curiosity rover - the agency's other functioning rover on Mars - is also seeing some haze in the atmosphere due to the dust storm, but it isn't experiencing any ill effects from the storm, NASA said.

The immediate threat is that the rover, without power, could succumb to Mars's harsh overnight cold. The storm could actually become a global tempest in the days to come, according to NASA.

Engineers at NASA have put the robot into minimal operations mode and are waiting to see if it will still function once the dust has settled. If the batteries are insufficiently charged, the computer will again enter a sleep mode, the same mode used each night to power down the rover. "If we were to happen to end up in a situation where there was a dust storm at the time of landing, we could fly right through it", he said. Callas said that, on June 2, Opportunity measured an optical depth of 0.6, which is normal for this time of year, and the rover was generating 645 watt-hours.

During the even more extensive 2007 dust storm, Opportunity spent two weeks in low power mode and was out of contact with Earth for several days.

However, it said that the rover has already proved hardier than expected by lasting almost 15 years - despite being designed for a 90-day mission.

"We think we can ride this out for a while".

"It's like you have a loved one in a coma in the hospital, the doctors are telling you you've just got to give it time and she'll wake up. It's a threatening storm, and we don't know how long it will last or what the environment will be like when it clears". The almost 15-year-old rover launched in 2003 and has been exploring Mars since it landed in January 2004.

Controllers expect it will be several more days before there's enough sunlight to recharge Opportunity's battery through its solar panels. Both rovers vastly exceeded expectations and while Spirit, which got stuck in a sand dune, went off line in 2010, Opportunity continues to return valuable science.

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. The rover is created to operate in temperatures as low as -55 Centigrade (-67 in Freedom units). That's because it may not be able power its electronic circuits enough to prevent severe cold on Mars from damaging them. While they can begin suddenly, they tend to last on the order of weeks or even months.

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