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NASA rover falls silent as very big dust storm envelops Mars

14 June 2018

NASA's Opportunity mission can rightly be called the rover that just wouldn't quit. "The rover needs to balance low levels of charge in its battery with sub-freezing temperatures".

Callas declared a "spacecraft emergency" due to low power. Data from the transmission let engineers know the rover still has enough battery charge to communicate with ground controllers at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. This latest transmission also showed that the rover's temperature had reached about -29 °C (-20 °F). However, as the rover's power supply started to dwindle, it moved into power-saving mode. Without sunlight, Opportunity can't power up. If the batteries are insufficiently charged, the computer will again enter a sleep mode, the same mode used each night to power down the rover. When there's enough power to re-establish the clock, Opportunity will set timers to manage a similar process. If the rover loses power for an extended amount of time, there is a chance it won't be able to power the heaters needed to keep its electronics alive. Both rovers vastly exceeded expectations and while Spirit, which got stuck in a sand dune, went off line in 2010, Opportunity continues to return valuable science. The only additional source of heat to prevent this failure are eight plutonium-powered devices that generate a watt each. "The current dust storm is providing us with an unprecedented opportunity to learn more about Mars and the many challenges it presents for exploration", said Jim Watzin, director of the Mars Exploration Program at NASA Headquarters. The calculations suggest that the steady-state temperature should be somewhere around -36°C. Here, NASA is helped out by how Opportunity is in an area that's moving into Martian summer, as well as the fact that dust storms tend to bring warmer surface temperatures with them.

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"Having this dust storm occur under the visibility of the whole fleet of orbiters that we have, and eventually Curiosity participating in the research as well, is going to teach us a whole lot about how these storms behave", he added later in the briefing. "We're concerned, but we're hopeful that the storm will clear and the rover will begin to communicate with us". However, still science operations remain suspended, the report said. Although the rover now steers with two wheels instead of four and one of its arm joints is a bit creaky, it's currently exploring Perseverance Valley, a feature carved into the rim of Endeavor Crater. The rovers found evidence of past volcanic activity, water flows, and meteor impacts.

Controllers expect it will be several more days before there's enough sunlight to recharge Opportunity's battery through its solar panels. 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. We don't now know what causes one of these storms to go global or why this one in particular seemed to strengthen at an unusual place.

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Maxwell, who left NASA in 2013 for Google, notes in the spirit of anthropomorphizing common to those involved with rovers, "She did more than anyone expected from her or ever could have expected from her, and if we can all say that at the end of our lives, then we'll be as lucky as she is".

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NASA rover falls silent as very big dust storm envelops Mars