For the past 66 days, scientists at NASA’s Mars Exploration Program have been anxiously waiting for the Opportunity rover to turn back on. Now that the epic, planet-wide dust storm that first knocked out the solar-powered vehicle on June 10 is finally dying down, the mission staff hope the darkened atmosphere will soon clear enough for the veteran Red Planet investigator to juice up its batteries and phone home.
In the meantime, there is little they can do from Earth.
According to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena's latest Opportunity Update, the science team has been listening for transmissions from the rover every day during preprogrammed communication time windows and during other times of day using the Deep Space Network Radio Science Receiver. Three times a week they send a command that would elicit a signal from Opportunity if it happened to be awake at the time.
"Morale has been a little shaky. This is the first time she [Opportunity] has stopped talking to us and not resumed communication when we expected," Michael Staab, a JPL engineer, told Space.com.
"That's a long time to not hear from your rover, and we don't know what it's doing," Staab said. "We still have things to do; we still have work to get done. But it's definitely slowed down a bit."
To deal with the continued uncertainty, on August 4 Staab and his colleagues brought back a beloved ritual from Opportunity’s early days: Every morning they play an on-theme song meant to energize the humans and symbolically encourage the rover to power on.
The first one on the playlist? Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go by Wham!, of course. Other cheekily fitting classics on the 18-song mix of songs they have listened to or plan to play on an upcoming morning include Dust in the Wind by Kansas (who, according to Staab, were thrilled to have their song utilized in this way), I Will Survive by Gloria Gaynor, Here Comes The Sun by The Beatles, and Life on Mars? by David Bowie.
Unfortunately, it may be necessary to expand the playlist significantly. Though the storm has been clearing since July 27, NASA and JPL scientists believe it could be weeks, or even months, until the dust settles enough. Plus, there’s always the possibility that Opportunity was damaged by the whipping winds and will never be heard from again.
When Opportunity first booted up after landing on the planet 5,177 Martian sols ago (that’s nearly 15 years in Earth time), the rover team began each day of the planned 90-day soil and rock analysis mission with a wake-up song. But, as Space.com notes, the rover easily surpassed its expected retirement date and kept working through its first Martian winter and beyond – making the song tradition impractical.
Fingers crossed Opportunity will continue to defy expectations and resume its exploration shortly.