NASA’s Opportunity Mars rover is facing a testing time, as it rides out a huge dust storm that's twice as big as one it experienced in 2007, described as a “dark, perpetual night” by NASA.
The rover is currently wrapped up in a storm that spans more than 18 million square kilometers (7 million square miles), bigger than North America. Part of the storm has smothered Opportunity’s current location, Perseverance Valley.
Dust storms on Mars are not particularly violent in terms of wind, as the atmospheric pressure on Mars is so low. But they cause an issue in that they blot out sunlight, like a smoggy day on Earth. This makes the rover’s solar panels, which it needs to survive, less effective.
Engineers were first alerted to the storm on Friday, June 1, which was detected by NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. On Wednesday, June 6, power levels on the rover had dropped significantly, forcing the team to abandon all science operations and switch to minimum power.
In an update yesterday, NASA said that had received a transmission from the rover, “a positive sign despite the worsening storm.” They said that the storm was now much worse than a previous one in 2007, with this one having an opacity level, or tau, of 10.8, compared to 5.5 in 2007.
“This latest data transmission showed the rover's temperature to be about -20°F (-29°C),” NASA said. “One saving grace of dust storms is that they can actually limit the extreme temperature swings experienced on the Martian surface. The same swirling dust that blocks out sunlight also absorbs heat, raising the ambient temperature surrounding Opportunity.”
Over the coming week the team will keep a close eye on the rover’s power levels, to ensure it survives. It needs to keep its battery charged while also dealing with the extremely cold temperatures, using its heater when it can to keep it alive. They've also requested more time from NASA's Deep Space Network on Earth to stay in touch with the rover.
Opportunity has far exceeded its original lifetime of 90 days, lasting almost 15 years on the Martian surface. But it was ultimately the Martian cold that was the death of Opportunity’s twin rover Spirit in 2010, which became stuck on the surface and could not get enough power from sunlight.
Fingers crossed the same fate will not befall Opportunity, and it’ll be able to ride out this storm and continue its operations on Mars.