Waning Martian Dust Storm Could Herald The Return Of NASA's Opportunity Rover

Endeavour Crater on Mars, as seen by Opportunity in 2017. (Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell/Arizona State Univ.)

Good news, everyone! The planet-encircling dust storm on Mars is beginning to wane, which means NASA’s solar-powered Opportunity rover, currently in hibernation mode, will soon be able to wake up — assuming the storm hasn’t irreparably damaged it.

The epic Martian dust storm started on May 30, casting dark skies over Perseverance Valley, where the 15-year-old Opportunity had been working. The storm soon escalated into a global event, spanning the entire circumference of Mars.

With all the dust in the air, and with Opportunity unable to collect enough incoming solar light, NASA had to suspend operations and put the rover into hibernation mode to conserve energy.

It’s now been 82 days since we last heard from Opportunity, but with news that the storm is finally abating, the engineers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, will soon begin the process of reviving the beleaguered six-wheeled rover.

A mosaic of five images showing Perseverance Valley, Opportunity’s current location on Mars. (Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

“The Sun is breaking through the haze over Perseverance Valley, and soon there will be enough sunlight present that Opportunity should be able to recharge its batteries,” John Callas, Opportunity project manager at JPL, said in a statement.

“When the tau level [a measure of the amount of particulate matter in the Martian sky] dips below 1.5, we will begin a period of actively attempting to communicate with the rover by sending it commands via the antennas of NASA’s Deep Space Network. Assuming that we hear back from Opportunity, we will begin the process of discerning its status and bringing it back online.”

NASA is using the Mars Colour Imager (MARCI) aboard NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) to estimate the tau near Opportunity. The latest MARCI data shows no active dust storms to within 3000km of Opportunity’s location.

Should all go well, Opportunity will say hello and slowly be brought back online. But there’s a distinct possibility we’ll hear nothing, which would be bad, but not necessarily the end of the world.

“If we do not hear back after 45 days, the team will be forced to conclude that the Sun-blocking dust and the Martian cold have conspired to cause some type of fault from which the rover will more than likely not recover,” said Callas.

“At that point our active phase of reaching out to Opportunity will be at an end. However, in the unlikely chance that there is a large amount of dust sitting on the solar arrays that is blocking the Sun’s energy, we will continue passive listening efforts for several months.”

For example, a Martian dust devil could come along, blowing the dust off the rover’s solar arrays. Back in 2016, Opportunity was visited by one such whirlwind, which are common on the Red Planet.

That said, NASA says there’s a small chance that dust accumulation would be the reason Opportunity can’t phone home, saying the storm could have caused all sorts of problems.

“The impact of this latest storm on Opportunity’s systems is unknown but could have resulted in reduced energy production, diminished battery performance, or other unforeseen damage that could make it difficult for the rover to fully return online,” writes NASA.

Our collective fingers are crossed that some life still exists for this perky rover, but as we wait for the probe to come back online, it’s important to take stock and acknowledge Opportunity’s tremendous accomplishments to date. The probe was designed to travel just 1km, but in its many years of service it has managed to log more than 45km. This rover owes nothing to anyone.

[NASA]

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