A vast dust storm larger than the entire North American continent is now raging on Mars-and it has forced NASA to suspend the scientific operations of its Opportunity rover. 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.
The opacity of the storm, an indication of how effectively it is blocking out sunlight, is at record levels for Opportunity, making it hard for the rover's solar arrays to fully charge its batteries.
Full dust storms though one are not surprising, but are infrequent.
Opportunity beamed a message to its handlers on Sunday (June 10), which is a good sign; it shows the rover still has a decent amount of battery power left.
The image above shows progressive views from Opportunity's mastcam, as the dust storm intensified since it was first spotted on May 30, 2018.
NASA launched the twin rovers Opportunity and Spirit in 2003 to study Martian rocks and soil.
Opportunity is a plucky little robot that was only created to survive for 90 days on the surface of Mars but has kept on trundling for 15 years.
As of June 12, the tau value for Opportunity's dust storm was estimated at almost 11!
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Organic molecules are the building blocks of life, though they can also be produced by chemical reactions unrelated to life. Nobody knows, of course, whether microbes or any other organisms have ever called Mars home.
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Back in 2007, a much larger storm covered the planet, which led to two weeks of minimal operations and no communications.
Whereas the previous storm had an opacity level (tau) of about 5.5, this new storm has an estimated tau of 10.8.
If the rover's computer determines that its batteries don't have enough charge, it will again put itself back to sleep.
The latest data transmission showed the rover's temperature to be about minus 20 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 29 degrees Celsius).
Right now, the vast plain Opportunity is exploring - Meridiani Planum - is blanketed in the most intense dust storm that NASA scientists have ever witnessed.
While the insulating factor of the dust will likely keep Opportunity's instruments from suffering damage from the cold, there is one very serious ramification of this storm. During southern summer, sunlight warms dust particles, lifting them higher into the atmosphere and creating more wind. While they can begin suddenly, they tend to last on the order of weeks or even months.
'One saving grace of dust storms is that they can actually limit the extreme temperature swings experienced on the Martian surface. The team is now operating under the assumption that the charge in Opportunity's batteries has dipped below 24 volts and the rover has entered low power fault mode, a condition where all subsystems, except a mission clock, are turned off.