NASA has been pinging the Opportunity rover for the last several months, but the plucky little robot is still sleeping after its run-in with a massive Martian dust storm. There may still be hope for the mission, too. NASA engineers say that Opportunity has one last chance to save itself from oblivion thanks to an upcoming windy season on Mars.
The Opportunity rover landed on Mars along with its sibling Spirit almost 15 years ago. NASA designed the rovers to last at least 90 days on the red planet, and they’ve lasted much longer. Spirit went offline several years ago after getting stuck in soft soil, which prevented it from directing its solar panels at the sun. Opportunity may suffer a similar fate as it loses power, but the cause is much more dramatic.
Last spring, Mars experienced a global dust storm. These monster storms form every few years, blotting out the sun for months at a time. This storm was particularly heavy, too. According to NASA, the opacity level or “tau” of the storm reached a value of more than 10. On average, the Martian atmosphere has a tau of about 1.5. With so little light, NASA placed Opportunity into hibernation mode, but even that wasn’t enough to keep the rover powered.
It’s impossible to know how much dust has covered the rover’s solar panels — the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) spotted Opportunity from orbit, but the image resolution isn’t sufficient to make out details. However, we’re approaching a time every year when Mars gets very windy between November and January (on Earth). The Opportunity team calls this “dust-clearing season” because it has cleared excess dust off the rover’s solar panels in the past. They hope dust-clearing season could uncover enough of the panels to power the rover up again.
Opportunity last communicated with Earth on June 10th. NASA recently increased its communication rate with Opportunity in case it should come back online suddenly. If it does wake up, NASA will work to assess its condition and return the rover to full operation. However, the internal heaters haven’t been operational for months now. It’s possible the batteries have suffered permanent damage from the cold, and clear solar panels won’t be enough to bring Opportunity back to life. NASA will reevaluate the future of the mission if Opportunity doesn’t wake up by the end of dust-clearing season.
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