NASA rover knocked out as dust storm en­velops Mars

The Daily Star (Lebanon) - - LIFE - By Mar­cia Dunn

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla.: NASA’s seem­ingly un­stop­pable Mars rover Op­por­tu­nity has been knocked out by a gi­gan­tic dust storm that is en­velop­ing the red planet and blot­ting out the sun.

Of­fi­cials said Wed­nes­day they’re hope­ful the rover will sur­vive the storm, which al­ready cov­ers onequar­ter of Mars and is ex­pected to en­cir­cle the planet in another few days. It could be weeks or even months, though, un­til the sky clears enough for sun­light to reach the Mar­tian sur­face and recharge Op­por­tu­nity’s bat­ter­ies through its so­lar pan­els. For now, Mars’ old­est work­ing rover is stuck in the mid­dle of the rag­ing storm, in round-the­clock dark­ness.

“By no means are we out of the woods here,” said John Cal­las, the Op­por­tu­nity project man­ager at NASA’s Jet Propul­sion Lab­o­ra­tory in Pasadena, Cal­i­for­nia. “This storm is threat­en­ing, and we don’t know how long it will last, and we don’t know what the en­vi­ron­ment will be like once it clears.”

Flight con­trollers tried late Tues­day night to con­tact Op­por­tu­nity, but the rover did not re­spond. The storm has been grow­ing since the end of May with un­prece­dented speed.

NASA launched the twin rovers Op­por­tu­nity and Spirit in 2003 to study Mar­tian rocks and soil. They landed in 2004. Spirit hasn’t worked for sev­eral years. Op­por­tu­nity, how­ever, has kept ex­plor­ing well past its ex­pected mis­sion life­time.

Sci­en­tists aren’t nearly as con­cerned about the newer, nu­cle­ar­pow­ered Cu­rios­ity rover on the other side of Mars, which is al­ready see­ing dark­en­ing skies.

Dust storms crop up ev­ery so of­ten at Mars, send­ing dust tens of kilo­me­ters into the at­mos­phere and turn­ing day into night. Space­craft or­bit­ing Mars are too high to be af­fected.

There’s no chance of Op­por­tu­nity be­ing buried or get­ting a wheel stuck in dust. Even in the worst of storms, only a layer of fine dust is left be­hind. Man­agers said the main con­cern is that dust could tem­po­rar­ily cover its op­ti­cal in­stru­ments.

The rover’s bat­ter­ies are likely so low that only a clock is still work­ing, to wake the space­craft for pe­ri­odic power-level checks, ac­cord­ing to of­fi­cials. If the clock also goes offline, then the rover won’t know what time it is when it comes back on and could send back sig­nals at any time.

This isn’t Op­por­tu­nity’s first ma­jor brush with dust.

In 2007, a mas­sive dust storm kept Op­por­tu­nity si­lent for a few days. It jumped back into ac­tion af­ter awak­en­ing from its deep self­pro­tect­ing slum­ber.

This time, the rover’s en­ergy level is be­lieved to be much lower. On the plus side, Mar­tian sum­mer­time is ap­proach­ing and that should keep tem­per­a­tures up at night and pre­vent the bat­ter­ies and other parts from freez­ing. Be­sides elec­tri­cal heaters, Op­por­tu­nity is equipped with eight tiny plu­to­nium-pow­ered heaters.

Sci­en­tists are ea­ger to learn as much as they can about the dust storm to hone their weather fore­cast­ing skills. Astro­nauts liv­ing on Mars, for in­stance, wouldn’t want to get caught out­side in a fierce dust storm, where winds can reach 113 kilo­me­ters per hour – al­most hur­ri­cane force. The Mar­tian at­mos­phere is so thin that while the wind can lift dust off the sur­face, it doesn’t top­ple a space­craft.

Op­por­tu­nity was in re­mark­ably good health go­ing into the storm, Cal­las said, with only an arthritic joint in its ro­botic arm.

“Keep in mind, we’re talk­ing about a rover that’s been work­ing at Mars, hanging in there, for 15 years and de­signed just for 90 days,” said Jim Watzin, di­rec­tor of NASA’s Mars ex­plo­ration pro­gram. “It just doesn’t get any bet­ter than that.”

Op­por­tu­nity was in re­mark­ably good health go­ing into the storm.

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