As a giant dust storm roars across a quarter of the face of Mars, NASA's Opportunity rover is facing possible extinction. In a teleconference, NASA engineers announced today that mission control at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California has lost contact with the unmanned probe, as the storm prevents the craft's solar panels from charging its batteries.

The Opportunity rover has had a remarkable career as its original 90-day mission stretched into 15 years, but there is a chance that its life is coming to an end. The dust storm that was first detected by NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) on May 30th has grown to cover 14 million mi² (35 million km²) and is so severe at the Perseverance Valley location that Opportunity's solar panels can't provide enough power to keep operating.

According to a NASA spokesman, the dust storm is of unprecedented severity, and has essentially turned the area around Opportunity pitch black even at noon. The solar panels, which normally produce 645 Watt/hours of electricity, have dropped to below 22 Watt/hours.

When the storm began, mission control ordered the rover to go into a low-power mode where it concentrated power to the batteries and the radio link. The batteries are needed to keep the systems operating and to run the heaters that keep the robotic explorer from freezing during the Martian night – an event from which is would not recover. In the low-power mode, Opportunity slept, awoke in the morning, established contact with Earth via one of the Mars orbiters, then went back to sleep.

NASA engineers were able to make contact with Opportunity on Sunday, but by today conditions had deteriorated to the point where the radio link has failed completely. The space agency says that the rover is now in a fault mode, where all systems are shut down except for the mission clock, which will wake the craft periodically to check power levels. If these are too low, the systems shut down again. If the power levels generated remain below 22 Watt/hours, even the clock will fail and the rover will have to rely on resetting internal timers to awaken itself.

Even if the storm abates, it will take several days for the batteries to recharge enough for Opportunity to go back online. Unfortunately, the storm is growing in strength and may engulf all of Mars. The only good news is that it's early summer in the region, the dust is acting as an insulator, and the storm is warming the air, so the rover is being kept at a temperature above its failure level. However, if the storm continues for very long or too much dust settles on the solar panels, then this could mean the end of Opportunity.

Source: NASA

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