Thursday, 20 September, 2018

Massive Martian Dust Storm Threatens Plucky NASA Rover

NASA's Curiosity Rover Is Tracking a Huge Dust Storm on Mars Dust hangs in the Martian air in this
Frank Williams | 16 June, 2018, 05:13

NASA's Curiosity rover is elsewhere on the planet, on the edge of the current dust storm, but it also doesn't need sunlight.

Rich Zurek, the chief scientist at JPL's Mars office, said the storm could very well spread to the whole planet, but he did not expect it to last for more than a few weeks.

"This team has a very strong bond with the rover, a very tight emotional connection with it", said John Callas, Opportunity project manager at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.

Mars in 2001 as it typically appeared (left) and how the red planet looked after a global dust storm appeared (right).

A much larger dust storm in 2007 is believed to have accounted for Opportunity's sister rover, Spirit. But they kept checking in on a regular basis.

"But if it's your 97-year-old grandmother, you're going to be very concerned, and so we are". "The rover hits a steady-state temperature", NASA's Jim Watson told reporters, "at which point there's a balance between what little energy is coming out of the rover and what's lost to the environment".

But eventually the storm became so intense that keeping even minimal activity was no longer possible. Opportunity is now enduring complete darkness 24 hours a day, and its power levels have dropped precipitously as a result - from 645 watt-hours on June 2 to about 22 watt-hours on Sunday (June 10), Callas said.

There is no news on how long the dust storm may last on Mars, but judging by its growing intensity, one would think that Opportunity is bound to face more hard days as it goes forward.

As of June 10, its size was comparable to the geographical span of North America and Russian Federation combined - and may grow larger.

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It could be weeks or even months until the sky clears enough for sunlight to reach the Martian surface and recharge Opportunity's batteries through its solar panels, with officials hopeful the rover could survive.

Before the storm took it offline, Opportunity was exploring "Perseverance Valley" on the west rim of "Endeavour crater".

If the master clock stops, Opportunity is programmed to wait until it can get enough power to operate via the panels, and then charge up to an operational level.

It also showed the rover's temperature to be around -29C. But on the scientific side of things, NASA's team reckons it will be at least several days before they know if the rover will be able to power itself back up again. As reported by BGR, the image is a composite simulation of the varying degrees of atmospheric opacity that Opportunity would have seen as it was being gobbled up by the dust storm over the period of the last few days. And, you know, the analogy I would use right now - it's like you have a loved one in a coma in the hospital.

"The doctors are telling you that, 'OK, you've just got to give it time and she'll wake up, all the vital signs are good, ' so it's just waiting it out", he said. "By no means are we out of the wood here". That's because it may not be able power its electronic circuits enough to prevent severe cold on Mars from damaging them.

Opportunity's twin, the Spirit rover, wasn't so lucky when it experienced a similar power drain in 2010.

The solar-powered Opportunity rover landed on Mars in 2004 and was supposed to last 90 days, though it has operated for more than 14 years.

That assessment is far more optimistic than what another NASA official said earlier in the day.

The robotic vehicle - one of two now operating on Mars - has shut everything down except its master clock, and last communicated with Earth on June 10.

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