Massive, ‘Unprecedented’ Dust Storm Puts Mars Rover at Risk

Engineers have not received any transmissions from the Opportunity rover since Sunday

These two views from NASA’s Curiosity rover, acquired specifically to measure the amount of dust inside Gale Crater, show that dust has increased over three days from a major Martian dust storm. The images were taken by the rover’s Mastcam. NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

A dust storm that began swirling on Mars over one week ago has now expanded to encompass a quarter of the planet. As Niraj Chokshi reports for the New York Times, NASA’s Opportunity rover is caught in the midst of the massive storm, leaving scientists concerned about its future.

The rover draws its power from the sun, which has been blocked out by the dust blowing around the Red Planet. “A dark, perpetual night has settled over the rover’s location,” according to a NASA status report. Opportunity, which is nestled in an area fittingly known as Perseverance Valley, seems to have automatically gone into power-saving mode while the storm rages. Engineers have not received any transmissions from the rover since Sunday morning, according to Ashley Strickland of CNN.

Opportunity was one of two rovers that landed on Mars in 2004. In 2007, it survived another large storm that took it out of contact for several days. Dust storms are, in fact, a frequent occurrence on the planet, and they can happen at any season. But according to NASA, the current event is “[o]ne of the thickest dust storms ever observed on Mars.”

The storm, which continues to grow, now covers 14 million square miles—“an area nearly the size of North America and South America combined,” notes Chokshi of the Times. Jim Watzin, the director of NASA’s Mars exploration program, says that the storm is “unprecedented in the pace at which it has grown and spread across the globe,” according to Chokshi. The storm could come to encircle the entire planet within a few days.

Scientists who work with Opportunity are anxiously waiting to see how the rover will fare during this dramatic event.

“The team has a strong bond and tight emotional connection with the rover,” says John Callas, Opportunity project manager at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, as Strickland reports. “It's like you have a loved one in a coma in the hospital. The doctors are telling you to give it time, and the vital signs are good. You just have to wait it out. If it's your 97-year-old grandmother, you're going to be concerned, and we are.”

Opportunity relies on heat to protect its batteries. Fortunately for the rover, the huge storm is taking place as Mars approaches summer, so temperatures should not dip below -131 degrees Fahrenheit—the lowest temperature that Opportunity can handle. And while Opportunity cannot currently receive heat from the sun, the dust that swirls around it can, helping to keep the rover (relatively) warm. The rover’s temperature is now hovering at around -20 degrees Fahrenheit.

Opportunity is also a hardy piece of machinery. Its original mission was supposed to last just 90 days, but the rover has been operating for the past 15 years. Opportunity has long outlasted Spirit, the second rover that landed on Mars in 2004, which stopped communicating with NASA scientists in 2010; researchers concluded its electronics had been damaged during the harsh Martian winter, and gave it up for dead.

All the Mars rovers have helped scientists make significant strides in their understanding of the planet and its history. In 2014, Opportunity discovered evidence suggesting that neutral-PH water existed in Mars’ Endeavor Crater, meaning that the region may have once supported microbial life. Just last week, researchers announced that the newer rover Curiosity had detected organic compoundsthe building blocks of lifeon the Red Planet.

Even as they fret about Opportunity’s future, scientists can’t help but feel excited about the opportunity to study the powerful storm that is putting the rover at risk. Opportunity may have been knocked out of commission, but three orbiters fitted with atmospheric instruments circle Mars, and Curiosity has started to register an increase in dust from its location in Gale Crater.

"This is the ideal storm for Mars science," Watzin says in the NASA press release. "We have a historic number of spacecraft operating at the Red Planet. Each offers a unique look at how dust storms form and behave—knowledge that will be essential for future robotic and human missions."

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