NASA attempts new rescue strategy for Opportunity Mars rover
NASA is starting a more aggressive campaign to reawaken the Opportunity Mars rover, which has been silent since June 10, 2018. Over the next few weeks, the space agency will send a series of radio commands aimed at getting the robotic explorer to reactivate or bypass systems that may have been shut down when it lost power.
With Mars currently 138 million mi (223 million km) away from Earth, trying to reactivate an ailing rover is far from easy – especially when the only tool available is commands sent over a radio beam. However, that is the only option available to NASA engineers as they try to find some way to reactivate the Opportunity rover.
In May 2018, the Red Planet was engulfed in a global dust storm that blotted out the Sun for weeks in the area where Opportunity was exploring. Because Opportunity is powered by solar panels, this left its systems without electricity and when its batteries were drained, the rover went into automatic shutdown.
It was hoped that when the dust storm abated around September, Opportunity would begin to operate again. When no radio signals were received by NASA's Deep Space Network (DSN), it was believed that ether the solar panels were coated in dust or that the rover's batteries had been more severely drained than was first thought, causing it to go into total shutdown.
In an effort to rescue Opportunity, NASA started a campaign of "sweeps and beeps" in which mission control sent a series of wake up commands throughout the day, followed by listening for any responses. If the solar panels were blown clear of dust by winds and the systems were still functional, it was possible to revive the craft.
Unfortunately, no signals have been received, leading engineers to suspect that the rover's battery or electronics were damaged by the long blackout. However, there is an outside chance that some other fault might be preventing it from replying. According to NASA, Opportunity's primary and/or secondary X-band radios may have failed, or the craft's internal clock may have been offset.
In case one of these have happened, NASA is using the DSN to send a series of radio commands to Opportunity, ordering it to switch to its back-up X-band radio, and to reset its clock and send a reply via UHF radio.
According to NASA, this attempt is important because the windy "dust-clearing season" at the Opportunity site is coming to an end, reducing the chances of cleaning the solar panels, and the southern winter is approaching. When it arrives, temperatures will drop far below freezing and are likely to permanently damage the batteries and other systems.
If the new rescue effort fails, the Opportunity team will consult with the Mars Program Office at JPL and NASA to determine the next steps.
"Over the past seven months we have attempted to contact Opportunity over 600 times," says John Callas, project manager for Opportunity at JPL. "While we have not heard back from the rover and the probability that we ever will is decreasing each day, we plan to continue to pursue every logical solution that could put us back in touch."