Mars mega-storm threat­ens Nasa rover af­ter 14year mis­sion

The Guardian Australia - - Environment / Science -

Nasa’s 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 on Wednesday they were hope­ful the rover would sur­vive the storm, which al­ready cov­ers a quar­ter of Mars and is ex­pected to en­cir­cle the planet in an­other few days. It could be weeks, or even months, un­til the sky clears enough for sun­light to reach the 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-the-clock 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 on 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 are not con­cerned about the newer, nu­clear-pow­ered Cu­rios­ity rover, which is on the other side of Mars where skies are be­gin­ning to darken.

Dust storms, which oc­cur from time to time on Mars, send dust tens of kilo­me­tres into the at­mos­phere and turn day into night. Space­craft or­bit­ing Mars are too high to be af­fected.

The Op­por­tu­nity is un­likely to be buried or get 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 self-pro­tect­ing slum­ber.

This time, the rover’s en­ergy level is be­lieved to be much lower. How­ever, Mar­tian sum­mer­time is ap­proach­ing, which should keep tem­per­a­tures up at night and pre­vent the bat­ter­ies and other parts 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, would strug­gle if caught out­side in a fierce dust storm, where winds can reach 113kph (70mph).

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.”

Pho­to­graph: AP

Nasa’s Mars rover Op­por­tu­nity took this panoramic im­age in 2006. A huge storm en­gulf­ing the planet has put the ve­hi­cle out of ac­tion.

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