Why NASA Is Closely Watching a Gargantuan Dust Storm

The Opportunity rover is stuck in it on Mars
By Kate Seamons,  Newser Staff
Posted Jun 13, 2018 7:43 AM CDT
Opportunity Rover Is Stuck in a 'Dark, Perpetual Night'
This series of images shows simulated views of a darkening Martian sky blotting out the Sun from NASA’s Opportunity rover’s point of view, with the right side simulating Opportunity’s current view in the global dust storm (June 2018).   (NASA/JPL-Caltech/TAMU)

To call the Martian dust storm gargantuan wouldn't be an overstatement: As of Tuesday, it covered a quarter of the planet, making it the size of North America and Russia combined, per Space.com. And the Opportunity rover is in the middle of it. That's of concern. The problem isn't the dust, but the darkness it creates. While the rover does have batteries, it's primarily solar-powered, and it's currently enveloped in what NASA calls "a dark, perpetual night." Space.com explains the fine line: Opportunity's handlers need to keep its heaters running at a level that will prevent it from freezing without draining the batteries. Engadget provides a timeline: The storm was spotted June 1, the rover entered minimal operations mode by June 6, and on Sunday, in an encouraging sign, it beamed a message to Earth.

But what it's facing is formidable: Though it weathered what Space.com called an "even larger" dust storm for two weeks in 2007, the atmospheric opacity level then registered around a 5.5. As of Sunday, this storm's level was estimated at a much more severe 10.8. On Tuesday, NASA's attempt to make contact with the rover failed, suggesting the battery level had finally dipped below 24 volts. That would put it in low power fault mode, where the only subsystem to operate is the mission clock, which is set to wake up the computer at certain intervals to recheck the power level. But Opportunity has proven to be plucky: Designed for a 90-day mission, it's set to enter year 15 of operation next month. (In other NASA-related news, its $1 billion tower is leaning.)

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