NASA rover knocked out as gigantic dust storm envelops Mars

NASA rover knocked out as gigantic dust storm envelops Mars

The storm was first detected on Saturday, June 1 and promptly grew to span more than seven million square miles - an area greater than North America. Engineers hope that the storm will provide some atmospheric shielding against the planet's dramatic daily temperature swings, Callas said.

Astronauts living on Mars, for instance, would not want to get caught outside in a fierce dust storm.

In a briefing with reporters, John Callas, project manager for Opportunity at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said that the rover was in a power-conserving sleep mode that he believed the rover could ultimately survive.

In 2007, a massive dust storm kept Opportunity silent for a few days.

This reading is about twice as dense as any other storm that Opportunity has endured since landing on Mars in 2004.

Controllers expect it will be several more days before there is enough sunlight to recharge Opportunity's battery through its solar panels.

Beyond power loss, there is concern about frigid conditions, though Callas said Opportunity should stay above its minimum-allowable operating temperatures "for the long term".

Flight controllers tried late Tuesday night to contact Opportunity, but the rover did not respond.

Opportunity's batteries are likely so low that only a clock is still working, to wake the spacecraft for periodic power-level checks, according to officials.

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The mission clock will trigger the computer to turn back on to check power levels sporadically, NASA said.

"Our expectation at this point is that the rover has gone to sleep, it's in this low-power mode, and that it will remain in that low-power mode until there is sufficient energy to charge the batteries back above a certain threshold", Callas added.

Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity has been delivering science from the surface of the Red Planet for over 14 years now - an incredible accomplishment for a robot that was only intended for an initial 90 day mission. "It just doesn't get any better than that".

The most recent transmission from Opportunity "showed the rover's temperature to be about minus 20 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 29 degrees Celsius)", NASA said in a status report.

It could also pose a threat to the Curiosity rover, which is monitoring the storm from the periphery.

"Each observation of these large storms brings us one step closer to being able to model them", Zurek said, and his colleague Watson noted that "we're fortunate that we have a record number of operational spacecraft at Mars" to make those observations. "It's completely dark on Mars", he said.

"But if it's your 97-year-old grandmother, you're going to be very concerned, and so we are".

Dust storms aren't unusual on Mars, and researchers were ready with a temporary solution - Opportunity rover can be put into a low-power mode. Spirit hasn't worked for several years.

Opportunity and Spirit have totally overhauled our understanding of Martian geology, revealing never-before-seen rocky features on Mars. Imaging from orbit suggested that the valley may have been cut by flowing water, and the rover is being sent to look for evidence of that. Originally, this robotic rover was only meant to operate on Mars for 90 Martian days (or sols), which works out to a little over 90 Earth days.

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