Monday, June 11, 2018

Opportunity Rover Hunkers Down During Dust Storm

This global map of Mars shows a growing dust storm as of June 6, 2018. The map was produced by the Mars Color Imager (MARCI) camera on NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter spacecraft. The blue dot indicates the approximate location of Opportunity. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

NASA engineers received a transmission from Opportunity on Sunday morning — a positive sign despite the worsening dust storm. Data from the transmission let engineers know the rover still has enough battery charge to communicate with ground controllers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. Science operations remain suspended.

Sunday's transmission was especially good news considering the dust storm has intensified in the past several days. A dark, perpetual night has settled over the rover's location in Mars' Perseverance Valley. The storm's atmospheric opacity — the veil of dust blowing around, which can blot out sunlight -- is now much worse than a 2007 storm that Opportunity weathered. The previous storm had an opacity level, or tau, somewhere above 5.5; this new storm had an estimated tau of 10.8 as of Sunday morning.

Opportunity's team has requested additional communications coverage from NASA's Deep Space Network, a global system of antennas that talks to all the agency's deep space probes.

This latest data transmission showed the rover's temperature to be about minus 20 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 29 degrees Celsius). One saving grace of dust storms is that they can actually limit the extreme temperature swings experienced on the Martian surface. The same swirling dust that blocks out sunlight also absorbs heat, raising the ambient temperature surrounding Opportunity.

Engineers will monitor the rover's power levels closely in the week to come. The rover needs to balance low levels of charge in its battery with sub-freezing temperatures. Its heaters are vitally important to keeping it alive, but also draw more power from the battery. Likewise, performing certain actions draws on battery power, but can actually expel energy and raise the rover's temperature.

Full dust storms like this one are not surprising, but are infrequent. They can crop up suddenly but last weeks, even months. During southern summer, sunlight warms dust particles, lifting them higher into the atmosphere and creating more wind. That wind kicks up yet more dust, creating a feedback loop that NASA scientists still seek to understand. 

The rover has proved hardier than expected by lasting nearly 15 years, despite being designed for a 90-day mission.

Credit: NASA

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