Thursday, 21 June, 2018

Opportunity Rover Is Stuck in a 'Dark, Perpetual Night'

NASA's Opportunity rover falls silent Opportunity on a Martian crater
Elijah Vega | 14 June, 2018, 03:16

The storm is covering an area of 14 million square miles, or a quarter of the Red Planet, NASA said today in a mission update. Mission team members have a delicate balancing act ahead if the dust storm persists; they'll need to run Opportunity's heaters enough to keep the rover from freezing, but not so much that they run out its batteries.

So, in sum, the rover is likely to remain inactive for weeks and months, but people are expecting that it will announce its return to activity once the dust storm has cleared. Luckily, NASA engineers received a transmission from the rover on Sunday, which was a positive indication since it proved that the rover still has enough battery charge to communicate with controllers at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. "We're concerned, but we're hopeful that the storm will clear and the rover will begin to communicate with us".

Flight controllers tried late Tuesday night to contact Opportunity, but the rover did not respond. The storm has been growing since the end of May with unprecedented speed.

From the perspective of NASA's long-lived Opportunity rover on Mars, the sky is almost black in the middle of the day.

Spirit has not worked for several years.

Opportunity landed on Mars in 2004 for what was supposed to be a 90-day mission.

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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. Spacecraft orbiting Mars are too high to be affected.

What triggered that low-power mode is a powerful dust storm that has developed in the last two weeks.

The steadily dropping power levels forced mission managers to suspend science operations on June 8.

One complication, he said, is if the rover's power drops low enough that it can not operate an onboard clock. "The rover hits a steady-state temperature", NASA's Jim Watson told reporters, "at which point there's a balance between what little energy is coming out of the rover and what's lost to the environment". Over time the dust clouds grow to encompass entire regions, and those regional storms can combine to form globe-engulfing weather events.

A saving grace about these storms is that they limit the extreme temperature swings, and the dust they kick up can also absorb solar radiation, thus raising ambient temperatures around Opportunity. It jumped back into action after awakening from its deep self-protecting slumber. The rover has set a number of records during this time, including distance driven on another solar system body (beating out Russia's Lunakhov 2 rover on the Moon), and it just set a new one. one that might cost it, dearly. The only additional source of heat to prevent this failure are eight plutonium-powered devices that generate a watt each. One of the principal objectives of NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, one of three USA satellites tasked with analyzing the planet, is to enhance our understanding of Martian meteorology. The Martian atmosphere is so thin that while the wind can lift dust off the surface, it doesn't topple a spacecraft.

Opportunity was in remarkably good health going into the storm, Callas said, with only an arthritic joint in its robotic arm.

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