Friday, 22 June, 2018

Massive dust storm on Mars suspends NASA's Opportunity rover from science work

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Sandra Phillips | 13 June, 2018, 21:00

The unusual climate there also means that summer brings constant dust storms, which can cover the atmosphere and bring perpetually dark days that could last months.

In an update on Sunday, June 10th, NASA offered some reassuring news, saying that Opportunity had managed to send a brief message home earlier in the day despite the increasing peril.

The rover has proved hardier than expected by lasting almost 15 years, despite being designed for a 90-day mission.

NASA's Curiosity rover has found new evidence preserved in rocks on Mars that suggests the planet could have supported ancient life, as well as new evidence in the Martian atmosphere that relates to the search for current life on the Red Planet.

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As the rover team prepared the contingency plan to deal with the situation, the storm grew more intense than expected. This is a problem because the rover uses solar panels to provide its power and recharge its batteries. It didn't take long for the dust storm to grow in size to cover more than 7 million square miles (11.2 million square kilometers), which is larger than North America.

"We first started observing little bursts of methane, and it really wasn't until this paper, which incorporates data from the last five-and-a-half years from the rover, that we were able to show that those methane bursts occur on a seasonal basis and therefore really are intrinsic, they're from Mars itself", Siebach says. Critically, the dust raised the atmospheric opacity in Perseverance Valley, and Opportunity's power levels dropped significantly by Wednesday, 6 June, requiring the rover to shift to minimal operations. The space agency even shut down its contact with Opportunity for two days to save on energy. About every 26 months, it's summer on Mars, meaning prime dust storm season. It's not unlike running a vehicle in the winter so that the cold doesn't sap its battery charge.

It also goes without saying that men or women who will make the trip to another planet should be able to get back, which means blast off needs to be possible from Mars. Despite this, both rovers have vastly exceeded expectations: they were only created to last 90 days each.

This storm is bad, but Opportunity is made of hardy stuff. Working on Mars since the year 2004, the NASA Opportunity rover has faced a similar condition in the year 2007 when a dust storm even bigger than the present one had covered the planet and forced the Opportunity to cease its activities for around 2 weeks. Opportunity is in its 15th year; the team has operated the rover for more than 50 times longer than originally planned. "That wind kicks up yet more dust, creating a feedback loop that NASA scientists still seek to understand".

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