Six things about Opportunity's recovery efforts

August 17, 2018, Jet Propulsion Laboratory
Side-by-side movies shows how dust has enveloped the Red Planet, courtesy of the Mars Color Imager (MARCI) wide-angle camera onboard NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO). Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

NASA's Opportunity rover has been silent since June 10, when a planet-encircling dust storm cut off solar power for the nearly-15-year-old rover. Now that scientists think the global dust storm is "decaying"—meaning more dust is falling out of the atmosphere than is being raised back into it—skies might soon clear enough for the solar-powered rover to recharge and attempt to "phone home."

No one will know how the rover is doing until it speaks. But the team notes there's reason to be optimistic: They've performed several studies on the state of its batteries before the storm, and temperatures at its location. Because the batteries were in relatively good health before the storm, there's not likely to be too much degradation. And because tend to warm the environment—and the 2018 storm happened as Opportunity's location on Mars entered summer—the rover should have stayed warm enough to survive.

What will engineers at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, be looking for—and what will those signs mean for recovery efforts?

A tau below 2

Dust storms on Mars block sunlight from reaching the surface, raising the level of a measurement called "tau." The higher the tau, the less sunlight is available; the last tau measured by Opportunity was 10.8 on June 10. To compare, an average tau for its location on Mars is usually 0.5.

JPL engineers predict that Opportunity will need a tau of less than 2.0 before the solar-powered rover will be able to recharge its batteries. A wide-angle camera on NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter will watch for surface features to become visible as the skies clear. That will help scientists estimate the tau.

Updates on the dust storm and tau can be found here.

Two ways to listen for Opportunity

Several times a week, engineers use NASA's Deep Space Network, which communicates between planetary probes and Earth, to attempt to talk with Opportunity. The massive DSN antennas ping the rover during scheduled "wake-up" times, and then search for signals sent from Opportunity in response.

In addition, JPL's radio science group uses special equipment on DSN antennas that can detect a wider range of frequencies. Each day, they record any radio signal from Mars over most of the rover's daylight hours, then search the recordings for Opportunity's "voice."

Rover faults out

When Opportunity experiences a problem, it can go into so-called "fault modes" where it automatically takes action to maintain its health. Engineers are preparing for three key fault modes if they do hear back from Opportunity.

  • Low-power fault: engineers assume the rover went into low-power fault shortly after it stopped communicating on June 10. This mode causes the rover to hibernate, assuming that it will wake up at a time when there's more sunlight to let it recharge.
  • Clock fault: critical to operating while in hibernation is the rover's onboard clock. If the rover doesn't know what time it is, it doesn't know when it should be attempting to communicate. The rover can use environmental clues, like an increase in sunlight, to make assumptions about the time.
  • Uploss fault: when the rover hasn't heard from Earth in a long time, it can go into "uploss" fault—a warning that its communication equipment may not be functioning. When it experiences this, it begins to check the equipment and tries different ways to communicate with Earth.

What happens if they hear back?

After the first time engineers hear from Opportunity, there could be a lag of several weeks before a second time. It's like a patient coming out of a coma: It takes time to fully recover. It may take several communication sessions before engineers have enough information to take action.

The first thing to do is learn more about the state of the rover. Opportunity's team will ask for a history of the rover's battery and solar cells and take its temperature. If the clock lost track of time, it will be reset. The rover would take pictures of itself to see whether dust might be caked on sensitive parts, and test actuators to see if dust slipped inside, affecting its joints.

Once they've gathered all this data, the team would take a poll about whether they're ready to attempt a full recovery.

Not out of the woods

Even if engineers hear back from Opportunity, there's a real possibility the rover won't be the same.

The rover's batteries could have discharged so much power—and stayed inactive so long—that their capacity is reduced. If those batteries can't hold as much charge, it could affect the 's continued operations. It could also mean that energy-draining behavior, like running its heaters during winter, could cause the batteries to brown out.

Dust isn't usually as much of a problem. Previous storms plastered dust on the camera lenses, but most of that was shed off over time. Any remaining dust can be calibrated out.

Explore further: Opportunity hunkers down during dust storm (Update)

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1 / 5 (4) Aug 18, 2018
"NASA feels that the $12m annual operating cost of running Opportunity could be better spent elsewhere"

-Its roaming around on a very uninteresting region of mars. At this point it's pretty much an endurance contest.

Use the money for better machines in better regions.
3.9 / 5 (7) Aug 18, 2018
On the other hand, $12 million is the amount of money the Pentagon spends in 13 minutes. Give monitoring and operations to a public/private consortium of universities and gifted high school programs, fund it with money the Pentagon would waste on bomber toilet seats.
4.8 / 5 (4) Aug 19, 2018
No. We need all the Martian data that becomes available. The Rovers are there already, and it would be a waste of the money already spent if they were not well-utilised for the remainder of their "lifetimes". NASA science personnel are also already well-trained for their jobs and should be allowed to continue, as they have the experience and the preparation for any event.
3.3 / 5 (7) Aug 19, 2018
Use the money for better machines in better regions.

And the verdict from the mass of experts was: better use the money to cheaply get unique science. Opportunity still does it, in a region never visited before (well, duh), including getting first time surface data on - wait for it - a global dust storm.
4 / 5 (4) Aug 19, 2018
It will be interesting to see how long it takes for Opportunity to rid itself of the fine dust. NASA Engineers should have proposed a way to include an oscillating fan on board to help blow away the dust particles that have accumulated to whatever level. But hindsight is a b*tch.
I assume that Spirit is of no use now, else she could have come to Opportunity's rescue, although it wouldn't be a short drive.

I've been wondering for ages whether NASA forces its STEM and administrative employees to sign a non-disclosure statement/contract. A few of the Curiosity photos returned from Mars did show anomalous objects that appeared to be possible Life Forms. There was the small cave-like structure that contained something that resembled the yellow "Big Bird" of Sesame Street fame. That photo was taken by Curiosity - and it piqued MY curiosity.
Not long ago, MSM news carried a story about UFOs being real. The public didn't appear to be panicked over it. Nor became religious overnight
not rated yet Aug 20, 2018
On the other hand, $12 million is the amount of money the Pentagon spends in 13 minutes. Give monitoring and operations to a public/private consortium of universities and gifted high school programs, fund it with money the Pentagon would waste on bomber toilet seats
Not only is this obsolete little RC car wasting money, but the sort of people who are operating it are very hard to find. Their time could be much better spent on more advanced machines, exploring more challenging environments, looking for signs of LIFE and exploitable resources.

Look at where it's at. There's nothing THERE. Nothing to find. No meaningful data to gather and no ability to gather it.
Opportunity still does it, in a region never visited before (well, duh), including getting first time surface data on - wait for it - a global dust storm
Its 30yo technology. Dont you think we'd get much better data with SOTA tech?
not rated yet Aug 20, 2018
And the verdict from the mass of experts was: better use the money to cheaply get unique science
No, the verdict was to send sophisticated car-sized rovers like Curiosity that could climb mountains, dig, drill, analyse.

THESE are what we need more of.

Opportunity was proof of tech - could we get there? How do machines tolerate the environment?

It's not really designed for science.

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