spaceSpace and Physics

NASA's Silent Opportunity Rover Seen From Space As Its Fight For Survival Continues


Jonathan O'Callaghan

Senior Staff Writer

Opportunity is near the center of the white square. NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona

A NASA spacecraft orbiting Mars has spotted the Opportunity rover on the surface of the Red Planet, as the anxious wait over the rover’s well-being continues.

Opportunity has not been heard from since June 10, when a global dust storm engulfed Mars. In late August the storm began to clear, with hopes the rover would wake up from a sleep mode intended to ride out the storm. Almost 100 days later, it hasn’t.


Now an image snapped by NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), using its HiRISE camera, shows the location of the rover on Mars exactly where we left it. It's positioned on the slopes of Perseverance Valley, which it was descending when the dust storm arrived.

“The storm was one of several that stirred up enough dust to enshroud most of the Red Planet and block sunlight from reaching the surface,” said NASA. “The lack of sunlight caused the solar-powered Opportunity to go into hibernation.”

In the image taken on Thursday, September 20, you can just about make out the rover, captured from about 267 kilometers (166 miles) above the surface. The rover itself is about 2.3 meters (7.5 feet) across, and 1.6 meters (5.2 feet) long. The square highlighting the rover is about 1 kilometer (0.6 miles) across.

Dust levels on Mars are measured in tau, and at the peak of the storm they registered higher than 10. They have since steadily fallen to about 1.3 now, which should be adequate for the rover to gather enough sunlight to feed its solar panels and switch back on.


Last week, NASA began increasing the frequency of commands it sent to the rover as the dust levels cleared, hopeful that it would reply. One issue is that remnant dust may still be covering the panels, preventing Opportunity from coming back to life.

“The HiRISE image shows some reddening of the surrounding area, suggesting dust fallout, but it is not possible to determine how much dust is on the arrays themselves,” a statement from the University of Arizona noted.

“As the dusty sky continues to clear, the frequent commanding will continue and imaging will be repeated.”

NASA faced some criticism last month when it said it would only actively try to contact the rover by sending commands for 45 days. After that, they would only intermittently listen for a signal coming back from the rover. But others said 45 days was not enough time, and considering the value of the rover more active attempts should be made.


The fact right now is that Opportunity still hasn’t woken up. Its twin rover, Spirit, succumbed to the Red Planet’s weather in 2011. All fingers will be crossed that the same fate hasn’t befallen its sister.


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