Mars dust storm clears, raising hope for stalled NASA rover

A self-portrait by NASA's Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity, seen from above, released in January 2014
A self-portrait by NASA's Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity, seen from above, released in January 2014

One of the biggest Martian dust storms on record is clearing up after nearly three months, raising hope that NASA's stranded, solar-powered robotic vehicle, Opportunity, will soon come back to life.

The storm was first detected on May 30, and the US space agency's 15-year-old rover was last heard from on June 10, when it went into "sleep" mode as dust blocked out the Sun and darkness enveloped the Red Planet.

A NASA statement issued late Thursday called the situation "critical," but added that "the rover team is cautiously optimistic, knowing that Opportunity has overcome significant challenges during its 14-plus years on Mars."

If no successful contact can be made, NASA says it will give up active efforts in mid-October.

"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 John Callas, Opportunity project manager at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

"At that point, our active phase of reaching out to Opportunity will be at an end."

However, "passive listening efforts will continue for several months," Callas said, because of the "unlikely chance that there is a large amount of dust sitting on the solar arrays that is blocking the Sun's energy."

Twin rovers on Mars

Opportunity and its twin rover, Spirit, are a pair of unmanned robotic vehicles designed by NASA to tool around on the Martian surface and transmit data about conditions there back to Earth.

They landed on Mars in 2003 on a mission meant to last 90 days and span 1,000 yards (meters).

Spirit lasted 20 times longer than that. It became stuck in soft soil in 2009, and its mission was formally declared over in 2011.

Opportunity is going on 60 times its planned mission life, has traveled 28 miles (45 kilometers) and found evidence of water on Mars and conditions that may have been suitable for sustaining microbial life.

And even though it is hobbled, having lost the use of its front steering and 256-megabyte flash memory, not everyone is ready to give up so fast.

The hashtags #SaveOppy and #WakeUpOppy have gained popularity on Twitter, with appeals to keep trying to contact the rover led by a former flight director and Earth-based rover driver for Opportunity, Mike Siebert.

For Siebert, 45 days is too short, considering that NASA spent up to 15 months listening for contact from Spirit before giving up.

"100% Grade A B.S. the amount of time given to recover Opportunity is woefully insufficient," he tweeted late Thursday.

"Whomever made this decision is a coward."

NASA is the only space agency to have successfully landed a robotic vehicles on Mars.

Its larger, newer vehicle, Curiosity, touched down in 2012 and has been largely unaffected by the dust because it operates using a nuclear-powered battery.

Martian dust storms are common, and can be more easily whipped up there than on Earth because Mars has a thinner atmosphere.

They typically last between a few weeks and a few months.

"The dust haze produced by the Martian global dust storm of 2018 is one of the most extensive on record, but all indications are it is finally coming to a close," said Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter project scientist Rich Zurek at NASA's JPL.


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Martian dust storm silences NASA's rover, Opportunity (Update)

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Aug 31, 2018
Well, it's about time. :)

Here, we were all waiting with bated breath to hear that the dust storm is over and that Opportunity is still going strong.

Humming Neil Sedaka's "Waking Up Is Hard To Do".

Sep 01, 2018
Sad that every time Mars is closest to Earth, a dust storm kicks up.

Sep 01, 2018
If no successful contact can be made, NASA says it will give up active efforts in mid-October.

That statement is in future tense with the word "will" but mid-October has already come and gone this year.
Am I missing something?
Is that just a misprint?

Sep 01, 2018
It was August yesterday... mid-October has not come and gone, you are nuts.

Sep 01, 2018
Am I missing something?
Is that just a misprint?

Misprint? As far as you know. But you are also clearly missing something, add it to the search for the other missing matter.

Sep 01, 2018
Arrrrrr got my dates completely mixed up. This is what I can get when one day/month seems to me just like any another. Either that or I am a time traveler.

JRi
Sep 01, 2018
They should have built a small wind mill to the side of the rover to keep maintenance power in the battery in case of long lasting sand storms.

Sep 01, 2018
"Martian dust storms are...more easily whipped up there than on Earth because Mars has a thinner atmosphere."

I thought is was because Mars is bone-dry and has way more dust...

Sep 01, 2018
It is too bad that Curiosity is currently indisposed and can't get to Opportunity to clean her deck, power source, and instruments - plus clean her wheels and bearings and whatever else may need cleaning/dusting.
NASA should have considered all possibilities before they sent Curiosity to Mars, as Miss C is powered by a nuclear source.
Someday, when our astronauts are able to walk on Martian soil, perhaps they can get to Miss Opportunity and renew/revitalise her before too many sand storms have come and gone; hence giving her a more lengthy time to prove worthy.

Sep 02, 2018
The dust storms are static electrically charged which allows them to grow so huge.

Sep 03, 2018
The next rover to be sent to Mars should land near enough to Opportunity to clean her up and give her a good shot of PV before her batteries become corroded.

Sep 04, 2018
Darn global warming strikes again.

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