NASA’s Opportunity rover, which landed on Mars in 2004, is the endurance champion of interplanetary explorers. Over the past 14 years, it has trundled across some 30 miles of Mars’ equatorial Meridiani Planum region—by far the longest distance traveled on an alien world—and has outlived its planned mission length 56 times over.
But Opportunity is now battling a potentially fatal challenge, in the aptly named Perseverance Valley. For the past few weeks, the rover has become enveloped by a gigantic dust storm. Stretching out over an area the size of North America and Russia combined, it is one of the most intense storms ever observed on Mars, and Opportunity is right in the center of it. (The Curiosity rover is fine and has avoided the worst of the storm.)
“There’s a severe dust storm on Mars that is threatening Opportunity,” John Callas, Opportunity project manager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) said in a Wednesday teleconference.
“As a result, the rover has fallen asleep and is waiting out the storm. The project team is very concerned. We’re watching the weather and we’re listening with the Deep Space Network for signals.”
Dust blotted out the Sun from Opportunity’s perspective, forcing the solar-powered Opportunity to hunker down and switch off every energy-sucking instrument except its master clock, Callas said. The rover transmitted its last message on Sunday, telling its operators that it was running on very little power.
“Even though we heard from the rover, the rover was under master sequence control, I made the decision to declare a spacecraft emergency because there wasn’t enough energy to sustain activities,” Callas said.
Opportunity weathered a giant dust storm before, in 2007, but its Mars Exploration Rover (MER) twin, Spirit, wasn’t so fortunate, as it was left with much more dust on its solar panels. After a string of bad luck, including getting stuck in a sand trap, Spirit stopped communicating with NASA, likely because it lacked the energy to ward off cold hardware-wrecking temperatures. NASA declared the rover dead in 2011.
The MER team is cautiously optimistic that Opportunity will escape this fate, and not only because the rover has managed to overcome everything else Mars has thrown at it. Spirit was struggling to keep warm during the dark and cold Martian winter, but when the dust clears for Opportunity, which mission leads expect will be another month or two, it will be summer on Mars. Unlike Spirit, Opportunity has warmer temperatures and more sunlight to aid its recuperation.
“At this point, we’re in a waiting mode,” Callas said. “We’re listening everyday for possible signals from the rover and being prepared to respond to that. We’re concerned but we’re hopeful that the storm will clear and the rover will be able to communicate to us.”
However, there’s a chance that Opportunity has finally met its maker on Mars. It’s too soon to start eulogizing this long-lived Martian explorer, but even so, it’s an opportunity to take a moment to reflect on this rover’s incredible stamina and the insights into our neighbor world it has delivered.
“We’re all pulling for Opportunity,” Jim Watzin, director of the Mars Exploration Program at NASA Headquarters, said in the teleconference. “As you know it’s been a remarkably resilient rover. I’s longevity has taught us much about operating on the surface of Mars. Regardless of how this turns out, this rover has proven to be an invaluable investment that has greatly increased our ability to explore the red planet.”
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