Despite conditions that have deprived the Opportunity Mars rover of solar power, NASA officials said June 13 that they expected the long-lived spacecraft to survive an intense ongoing dust storm. The left starts with a blindingly bright mid-afternoon sky, with the sun appearing bigger because of brightness. Each frame corresponds to a tau value, or measure of opacity: 1, 3, 5, 7, 9, 11.
NASA's Curiosity rover - the agency's other functioning rover on Mars - is also seeing some haze in the atmosphere due to the dust storm, but it isn't experiencing any ill effects from the storm, NASA said.
The opacity of the storm, an indication of how effectively it is blocking out sunlight, is at record levels for Opportunity, making it hard for the rover's solar arrays to fully charge its batteries.
"If the rover's computer determines that its batteries don't have enough charge, it will again put itself back to sleep", NASA officials said. "And we're concerned about it, obviously". "It just doesn't get any better than that". "And so we are".
The dust has blotted out the Sun in many regions, including Opportunity's current location at Perseverance Valley.
That activity will involve returning to the science missions it's now been performing for 15 years.
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Operators at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) attempted to contact the rover on Tuesday but did not receive a signal, which means the craft has likely entered a "low power fault mode" wherein all systems, save a mission clock, are shut down. In 2007 a much larger dust storm covered the entire Martian surface, forcing the rover to switch to minimal operations for a whole two weeks.
The image above shows progressive views from Opportunity's mastcam, as the dust storm intensified since it was first spotted on May 30, 2018. The device has nearly certainly entered low-power mode, with all systems shut down except for a trickle of energy keeping the bot's main clock ticking.
If power levels drop far enough, even the clock will stop ticking. But without the clock, some of these timers will wake it at night, and NASA won't know in advance when it will try to communicate. In that case, the computer is programmed to periodically check to see if the sun is up and if so, to phone home. However, the dust should warm the atmosphere and keep the rover above its minimum operating temperature. The stranded rover houses eight radioisotope heater units packed with plutonium, which generate about eight watts of heat. And the Opportunity rover is in the middle of it. Once that happens, if the solar panels aren't too badly coated in dust, the team is expecting to get word from the little robot that could - although Callas said it was a worrying time.
It also showed the rover's temperature to be around -29C. "We're concerned but we're hopeful that the storm will clear and the rover will begin to communicate to us".
At last check-in, the rover was producing about 22 watt-hours of power.
Launched from Cape Canaveral on July 7, 2003, Opportunity landed on the red planet five-and-a-half months later, on January 24, 2004, three weeks after a twin rover, Spirit, bounced to an airbag-cushioned landing on the other side of the planet. That's because it may not be able power its electronic circuits enough to prevent severe cold on Mars from damaging them.