It’s been months since NASA engineers have heard from the sleeping Opportunity rover, which powered down after getting caught in a massive dust storm on Mars that obscured its surface from the Sun. But all hope isn’t yet lost, as the space agency said in an update Thursday that a coming windy season on the Red Planet could help clear dust believed to be obstructing Opportunity’s solar panels.
“A windy period on Mars—known to Opportunity’s team as “dust-clearing season”—occurs in the November-to-January time frame and has helped clean the rover’s panels in the past,” NASA said.
In the meantime, engineers with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL)—which oversees the 14-year-old rover’s operations—are increasing the number of commands to Opportunity and listening for any calls home in the event that it is still operational.
Engineers last heard from the rover on June 10 while it was working in Mars’ Perseverance Valley. NASA said it believes the global dust storm that peaked in June may have resulted in a layer of dust on the rover’s solar panels, blocking the necessarily sunlight it needs to recharge. At the time, NASA was forced but to put Opportunity into hibernation mode in order to preserve any remaining power until after the storm dissipated.
“No one can tell just how much dust has been deposited on its panels,” the space agency said in its update this week, but it added that its team remains hopeful.
Last month, the HiRISE camera aboard NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) spotted the sleeping rover on the Red Planet’s surface, indicating that it hadn’t been completely buried by dust and offering a glimmer of hope that sunlight would be able to reach its solar panels once the storm cleared.
“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 last month. “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.”
The Opportunity rover has far, far outlived its expected lifetime of 90 Martian days. Launched in 2003 with its twin Spirit as part of NASA’s Mars Exploration Rover (MER) mission, the golf-cart-sized robot is nearing 15 years on the Red Planet.
Here’s to hoping this remarkably resilient little rover will phone home soon.