NASA’s Opportunity rover recently celebrated an anniversary, but it was bittersweet. Last week marked 15 years on the Martian surface for the little rover, but it remains silent following a monster dust storm on the red planet last year. NASA is celebrating this milestone by making one last attempt to reconnect with Opportunity. If this doesn’t work, the robot will most likely be considered a loss.
Opportunity landed on Mars in January 2004, just a few weeks after its twin rover Spirit touched down. NASA designed the rovers with an intended lifespan of just 90 days, but they both far exceeded expectations. Spirit operated for 20 times longer than called for by the original mission, eventually falling victim to the harsh Martian winter after becoming stuck in sand. Opportunity continued to defy expectations until June 2018 when a massive dust storm engulfed the planet.
The newer Curiosity rover survived that storm just fine thanks to its radioactive power source (known as an RTG). However, Opportunity relies on solar panels to keep its batteries charged. NASA placed the rover in hibernation when the global dust storm blocked sunlight from reaching the rover, but the storm lasted weeks. The rover stopped sending routine signals early on, suggesting it didn’t even have enough power to keep its heaters operational. Without heat, the batteries may never work again.
NASA announced last week what may be a last ditch effort to make contact with the rover. This new approach is called “beep and sweep.” Rather than simply listening for Opportunity to send pings, NASA will beam a signal to the rover instructing it to reply with a beep. This approach is intended to address several possible but unlikely scenarios. First, Opportunity’s primary X-band radio has failed. Second, it’s primary and secondary X-band radios have failed. Finally, its internal clock may be offset. None of these is likely, as there are multiple safeguards in place to prevent them.
The signals beamed to Opportunity will instruct it to recalibrate its clock and switch to backup radios. If the probe is alive and can hear NASA’s commands, it might reply with a beep. The increased winds on Mars during the so-called “dust clearing season” might have blown dust off of the rover’s solar panels, but that period is almost over. This could be our last best chance to make it work.
If NASA does hear back from Opportunity, it would be a minor miracle. At that point, engineers could attempt a recovery. If not, the project team will consult NASA administration, which will likely consider Opportunity lost.