Mar­tian dust storm dis­ables NASA rover

Times Colonist - - World -

CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida — A NASA rover on Mars has been knocked out by a gi­gan­tic dust storm that en­velopes the planet and blots out the sun.

Of­fi­cials said Wed­nes­day they’re hope­ful the Op­por­tu­nity rover will sur­vive the storm, which al­ready cov­ers onequar­ter of Mars and is ex­pected to en­cir­cle the red 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 com­plete 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.”

All flight con­trollers can do is wait for the storm to pass and the sky to clear, of­fi­cials said, and hope Op­por­tu­nity calls home.

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.

Op­por­tu­nity’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.

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

“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. It just doesn’t get any bet­ter than that,” said Jim Watzin, di­rec­tor of NASA’s Mars ex­plo­ration pro­gram.

NASA, ZUMA PRESS VIA TNS

A sketch of a NASA rover on Mars.

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