NASA's Opportunity rover MIA after dust storm hits Mars — LOST OPPORTUNITY

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Originally, this robotic rover was only meant to operate on Mars for 90 Martian days (or sols), which works out to a little over 90 Earth days.

The dust storm was first spotted on May 30 by NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, and it has been growing ever since. The storm is covering an area of 14 million square miles, or a quarter of the Red Planet, NASA said today in a mission update. As the rover uses solar panels to provide power and to recharge its batteries, the rover was required to shift to minimal operations.

Artist's conception of a Mars Exploration Rover, which included Opportunity and Spirit. Likewise, performing certain actions draws on battery power, but can actually expel energy and raise the rover's temperature.

NASA's Opportunity rover's science operations have been temporarily suspended as it waits out a growing dust storm on Mars, the United States space agency said in a statement.

NASA launched the twin rovers Opportunity and Spirit in 2003 to study Martian rocks and soil.

However, it said that the rover has already proved hardier than expected by lasting almost 15 years - despite being designed for a 90-day mission. It's also important to note that Opportunity has dealt with long-term storms before and emerged unscathed.

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In 2007, a planetwide dust storm blotted out the sun for two weeks. In addition to Opportunity, the Mars rover Curiosity is monitoring dust levels from the storm.

Whereas the previous storm had an opacity level (tau) of about 5.5, this new storm has an estimated tau of 10.8.

Science operations were suspended on 8 June, but a transmission received at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, two days later showed the rover still had enough charge in its battery to phone home, a positive sign given the dust storm has been intensifying. This latest transmission also showed that the rover's temperature had reached about -29 °C (-20 °F).

Engineers at NASA have put the robot into minimal operations mode and are waiting to see if it will still function once the dust has settled. NASA has continued to track the storm from orbit and the surface. They occur during summer in the southern hemisphere, when sunlight warms dust particles and lifts them higher into the atmosphere, creating more wind. That's of concern. The problem isn't the dust, but the darkness it creates. While they can begin suddenly, they tend to last on the order of weeks or even months.

There is a risk that Opportunity will get too cold as it struggles to power its internal heaters, which protect its batteries from Mars' extreme cold.

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