Things are looking very unpleasant for NASA's Opportunity rover as the dust storm raging on Mars is officially classed as "global." Mission control has been out of contact with the unmanned explorer for over a week despite repeated attempts by NASA's Deep Space Network (DSN) to find a signal that Opportunity is programmed to transmit each Martian morning. Meanwhile, the dust blotting out the Sun is depriving the rover of electrical power, reducing its chances of survival.
The Martian dust storm, which was first detected by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) on May 30, continues to grow in intensity as it spreads over the entire planet. Even NASA's Curiosity rover has seen a steady increase in dust levels. Despite being on the opposite of the globe from Opportunity, the opacity, or tau factor, recorded by Curiosity has reached a level of eight, reducing light levels to that of a red, sullen twilight. By contrast, the dust is so thick around Opportunity that it would no longer possible to make accurate measurements even if the rover was still operational.
NASA engineers confirmed on June 13 that the dust storm was so great that all contact had been lost with Opportunity and that the solar panels were no longer able to keep the rover's batteries charged or run its systems. Because it is nuclear powered, Curiosity is in no danger. However, the space agency says that the storm is keeping the area around Opportunity warm enough that it may be able to function when the storm abates. Though when that will be, no one knows.
NASA says that the storm is on the same scale as the one seen by the Viking 1 orbiter in 1977, but not as large as the 2007 storm that Opportunity previously encountered. The current storm is more diffuse and patchy in character than those two previous storms, and despite the chance that Opportunity may not survive the storm, NASA scientists regard it as a chance to learn more about the Martian weather system, which can blow dust clouds as high as 40 mi (60 km).
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