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NASA’s Opportunity Rover is Battling a Massive Dust Storm on Mars

NASA's Opportunity rover halted over Martian dust storm

Optimistic about Mars Opportunity rover, says NASA. Pixabay

NASA’s Opportunity rover’s science operations have been temporarily suspended as it waits out a growing dust storm on Mars, the US space agency said in a statement.

First detected by NASA on June 1, the storm ballooned to more than 18 million square.km and included the Opportunity’s current location at Perseverance Valley in the Red Planet by June 8.

The swirling dust has raised the atmospheric opacity, or “tau”, — the veil of dust blowing around, which can blot out sunlight — in the valley in the past few days.

As the rover uses solar panels to provide power and to recharge its batteries, the rover was required to shift to minimal operations.

The storm’s atmospheric opacity is now much worse than a 2007 storm that Opportunity weathered. The previous storm had an opacity level, or tau, somewhere above 5.5; this new storm had an estimated tau of 10.8 as of morning on June 10.

Despite the worsening dust storm, Opportunity also sent a transmission to NASA engineers on the same day, the report said.

Data from the transmission let engineers know the rover still has enough battery charge to communicate with ground controllers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

However, still science operations remain suspended, the report said.

Mars. Pixabay

Opportunity’s team has also requested additional communications coverage from NASA’s Deep Space Network — a global system of antennas that talks to all the agency’s deep space probes.

The latest data transmission showed the rover’s temperature to be about minus 20 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 29 degrees Celsius).

Engineers will monitor the rover’s power levels closely in the week to come. The rover needs to balance low levels of charge in its battery with sub-freezing temperatures.

Its heaters are vitally important to keeping it alive, but also draw more power from the battery. Likewise, performing certain actions draws on battery power, but can actually expel energy and raise the rover’s temperature.

Also Read: NASA to Hold Announcement About New Discovery on Mars

The rover has proved hardier than expected by lasting nearly 15 years, despite being designed for a 90-day mission.

Full dust storms though one are not surprising, but are infrequent. They can crop up suddenly but last weeks, even months.

During southern summer, sunlight warms dust particles, lifting them higher into the atmosphere and creating more wind.

Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and two other NASA spacecraft orbiting the Red Planet –Odyssey and MAVEN — routinely support rovers on the ground. (IANS)

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NASA is Confident Regarding Mars Opportunity Rover

However, even after the first time engineers hear from Opportunity, it would take time to fully recover, NASA said

Optimistic about Mars Opportunity rover, says NASA. Pixabay

There’s reason to be optimistic about Mars Opportunity rover that has been silent since June 10, after getting caught in a massive dust storm on the Red Planet that cut off solar power for the nearly 15-year-old rover, NASA said in a statement.

According to the scientists, the global dust storm is “decaying” — meaning more dust is falling out of the atmosphere than is being raised back into it. As a result, skies might soon clear enough for the solar-powered rover to recharge and attempt to “phone home.”

Studies on the state of batteries and temperatures at the location showed that they were relatively in good health before the storm, and there is not likely to be too much degradation.

Moreover, because dust storms tend to warm the environment — and the storm happened in summer — the rover should have stayed warm enough to survive, the US space agency noted.

Engineers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California are now looking for signs for recovery efforts.

According to them, Opportunity will need a tau — the veil of dust blowing around — of less than 2.0 before the solar-powered rover will be able to recharge its batteries.

Engineers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California are now looking for signs for recovery efforts. Flickr

The higher the tau, the less sunlight is available; the last tau measured by Opportunity was 10.8 on June 10. To compare, an average tau for its location on Mars is usually 0.5.

Several times a week, the engineers are using NASA’s Deep Space Network, which communicates between planetary probes and Earth, to attempt to talk with Opportunity.

The massive DSN antennas ping the rover during scheduled “wake-up” times, and then search for signals sent from Opportunity in response.

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In addition, JPL’s radio science group uses special equipment on DSN antennas that can detect a wider range of frequencies. Each day, they record any radio signal from Mars over most of the rover’s daylight hours, then search the recordings for Opportunity’s “voice.”

However, even after the first time engineers hear from Opportunity, it would take time to fully recover, NASA said. (IANS)