spaceSpace and Physics

NASA's Opportunity Rover Goes Silent As Massive Dust Storm On Mars Blocks Out The Sun


Jonathan O'Callaghan

Senior Staff Writer

Simulated views of the darkening sky seen by Opportunity. NASA/JPL-Caltech/TAMU

Yesterday we told you that NASA’s Opportunity rover was fighting for its life on Mars in one of the biggest dust storms ever seen. Now it looks like things have taken a turn for the worse.

In an update posted last night, NASA said they had failed to hear back from the rover after attempting to contact it. This meant that the rover must have switched to a “lower power fault mode”, as its batteries dipped below 24 volts.


In this mode, all of the rover’s subsystems, save for a mission clock, are switched off. That clock will repeatedly check if the rover has enough power from its solar panels to switch on and, if not, it’ll keep the rover asleep.

“Due to an extreme amount of dust over Perseverance Valley [where Opportunity is located], mission engineers believe it is unlikely the rover has enough sunlight to charge back up for at least the next several days,” NASA said in the update.

This dust storm, which was first spotted at the end of May by NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), has grown into an absolute monster. It has turned day into night for Opportunity, blotting out the Sun, with the rover slap bang in the middle of the storm.


On Friday, June 8, it was estimated to span about 18 million square kilometers (7 million square miles), but it’s now doubled in size to more than 41 million square kilometers (15.8 million square miles), engulfing a quarter of the planet. That’s bigger than North America and Russia combined.


It’s so big that it’s not affecting just Opportunity. NASA also took some pictures showing the extent of the storm with its Curiosity rover, which is on the other side of the planet.


The event is pretty serious, with NASA saying they will hold a media teleconference later today to discuss the massive storm, and “what scientists can learn from the various missions studying this unprecedented event”.

Opportunity has survived on Mars for almost 15 years, far in excess of its original 90-day lifetime. But it now faces an intense fight to ensure the mission continues, and avoid the same fate that led to the demise of its twin rover Spirit.

When Spirit became stuck in loose soil, it was unable to tilt its solar panels to get enough power and survive the Martian winter. While Opportunity isn’t stuck, it still faces a testing time to retain enough power to switch back on, with no end to the storm in sight.


Good luck, Opportunity. We’re all rooting for you.


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