NASA Mars rover weathers monster dust storm

Martian Dust Storm

This suspension comes less than a week removed from the announcement that the Curiosity Rover had discovered "ancient organic matter" and "mysterious methane" on Mars. The small blue dot in the below image of the storm (click to enlarge) indicates Opportunity's location in Perseverance Valley. The science robot has been forced to go into emergency lock-down, after a storm larger than all of North America whipped itself into a frenzy on the red planet.

"There is a risk to the rover if the storm persists for too long and Opportunity gets too cold while waiting for the skies to clear", says NASA. The Opportunity Rover uses solar panels to provide power and to recharge its batteries, which is the main issue at hand.

This global map of Mars shows a growing dust storm as of June 6, 2018.

The storm itself is said to cover more than 7 million square miles, and that the swirling dust has created an environment "comparable to extremely smoggy day that blots out sunlight". The courageous little rover is continuing to weather the storm; it sent a transmission back to Earth Sunday morning, which is a good sign.

The storm that is now blanketing Opportunity is absolutely massive in size, with NASA estimating that it covers a whopping 7 million square miles.

"One saving grace of dust storms is that they can actually limit the extreme temperature swings experienced on the Martian surface", NASA reports. During southern hemisphere (where Opportunity is) summer, sunlight warms dust particles, lifting them higher into the atmosphere and creating more wind.

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In fact, Opportunity has been surviving for 15 years. The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, Mars Odyssey and MAVEN orbiters all routinely support Opportunity's operations on the ground and communication back to Earth via the Deep Space Network.

The latest data transmission from Opportunity on Sunday morning showed the rover's temperature to be about -20°F (-29°C).

Opportunity was designed with weathering huge storms in mind.

"Full dust storms like this one are not surprising, but are infrequent", NASA officials said in the statement. "The rover needs to balance low levels of charge in its battery with sub-freezing temperatures". Part of the equipment onboard is a survival heater system, which kick in to keep the batteries at a certain temperature rather than allowing them to get unduly cold.

Regardless of the outcome, it is extremely important to remember that Opportunity is now in its 14th Earth year of operation of what was supposed to be a 90-day mission when the rover landed on the Meridiani Planum on 25 January 2004.

That's because Opportunity - like NASA's other Martian robots - relies on sunlight for power.

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