The big dust storm on Mars has spread to cover a quarter of the planet. And the Opportunity rover has gone silent. NASA engineers attempted to contact the Opportunity rover on June 12 but did not hear back probably because the charge in its batteries has dropped below 24 volts. At that point, the rover enters low power mode where everything is turned off except the mission clock. The clock is programmed to wake the computer so it can check power levels. If there’s not enough, the rover goes back to sleep until the next check.
The dust cover is now extreme at Opportunity’s location with the storm equal to the combined area of North America and Russia. Mission engineers believe there may not be enough sunlight to charge the batteries for the next few days. The concern is that without battery power, the rover won’t be able to keep its electronics alive. Fortunately, the season is spring in the planet’s southern hemisphere, and temperatures are warming up. Mission scientists think that even if the storm continues to darken the sky and rob the rover of the sunlight it needs to produce electricity, temperatures won’t drop below Opportunity’s minimum allowable temperature.
A NASA teleconference to discuss Opportunity’s fate was held earlier today. You can listen to listen to the replay here.
The daytime sky at Opportunity looks as black as night in the middle of the day. Back on Earth, a number of Martian features have faded from view through the telescope. In previous global dust storms, the planet draws a blank slate and looks the color of one of those orange children’s aspirins. Big storms like this one take from several weeks to several months to clear. It’s a bummer if you’ve been eagerly waiting for Mars’ closest approach to Earth in 15 years. If you’re an planetary atmosphere scientist, the coming weeks will be among the best in your life.
But let’s be optimistic. Temperature and atmospheric pressure differences drive winds . Winds pick up dust and get the process going. But once the atmosphere is laden with dust, those variations flatten out, temperatures stabilize and the storm decays. With falling wind speeds, dust drops out of the atmosphere and skies clear. Soon we hope!