While Saturday, July 7 marked the 15th anniversary of its launch, NASA has still not heard from the Opportunity Mars Rover in about a month thanks to a “planet-encircling” dust storm on the Red Planet.
The U.S. space agency made contact with the rover as the massive Martian dust storm first moved in, but have not heard back from it since June 10. NASA has touted the rover’s durability in lasting nearly 15 years in action despite only being designed for a 90-day mission back in 2003.
— Spirit and Oppy (@MarsRovers) July 7, 2018
On the potential good news front, NASA reports in an update that the global dust storm on Mars might have reached its “peak” in recent weeks.
“The amount of dust over Gale Crater has been slowly declining over the last two weeks and it’s possible the dust storm has reached its ‘peak,'” the space agency reports.
“Whereas on Earth, we have thousands of surface weather stations and a constellation of spacecraft observing the weather, on Mars we are comparatively blind to global conditions.
“But based on what data we do have, we may now be entering (or soon entering) the period where the massive amount of dust in the atmosphere will slowly settle out and Mars’ shrouded surface may once again be clearly visible from space.”
NASA says the Martian dust storm has “blotted” out the view of the sun from the rover, which uses solar panels to provide power and to recharge its batteries. As it currently stands, all of Opportunity’s subsystems — besides its mission clock — are turned off in its low-power mode.
“The rover’s mission clock is programmed to wake the computer so it can check power levels,” NASA previously reported. “If the rover’s computer determines that its batteries don’t have enough charge, it will again put itself back to sleep.”
Ray Arvidson, the deputy principal investigator for the Opportunity rover, told Space.com as recently as last week that he remains confident the rover will make it through the massive storm.
Mars Storm Watch: The dust storm now circles the planet. No signal yet from Opportunity, but no response is expected until skies begin to clear. We continue to listen daily. https://t.co/VwuuPwEpPA pic.twitter.com/8q7lDoezxs
— Spirit and Oppy (@MarsRovers) June 20, 2018
The Martian dust storm blotting out the sun above Opportunity has continued to intensify. It blankets a quarter of the planet. All rover subsystems are off, except a mission clock, programmed to wake the computer to check power levels. Full status report: https://t.co/VwuuPwEpPA pic.twitter.com/rQvHDsxuQj
— Spirit and Oppy (@MarsRovers) June 13, 2018
John Callas, project manager for the space agency’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said during a news conference last month that the rover’s current life is comparable to having a “loved one in a coma in the hospital.”
“You have the doctors you that, ‘OK, just have to give it time, and she’ll wake up.’ All the vital signs are good, so it’s just waiting it out,” he said. “By no means are we out of the woods here.”
As for these massive Martian dust storms, NASA says they “are not surprising, but are infrequent” and can last not only weeks but “even months.” The space agency, as always, is treating the global dust storm on Mars as a learning opportunity as it says it will study why these dust storms like this one last for as long as they do “while others stay small and last only a week.”