A massive dust storm on Mars has temporally halted science operations on NASA’s Mars Opportunity Rover. NASA engineers attempted to make scheduled contact with the Opportunity Rover on June 12 but did not hear back.
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. Due to an extreme amount of dust, mission engineers believe it is unlikely the rover has enough sunlight to charge for at least the next several days.
NASA officials announced on June 13 that they were suspending science operations for the rover due to the week-and-a-half long storm, instead using four other spacecrafts to learn about the Mars climate from the swirling dust.
Dust events help shape the surface of Mars, making it critical for NASA to understand the ancient and modern climates on the Red Planet.
“Each observation of these large storms brings us closer to being able to model these events–and maybe, someday, being able to forecast them,” Rich Zurek, chief scientist for the Mars Program Office at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, said in a statement. “That would be like forecasting El Niño events on Earth, or the severity of upcoming hurricane seasons.”
The Mars Opportunity has already defied the odds—it was designed for only a 90-day mission and has lasted 15 years.NASA has three other orbiters circling Mars that are each equipped with special cameras and other atmospheric instruments, as well as the Curiosity rover located in Gale Crater that has already begun to see an increase in dust.
“This is the ideal storm for Mars science,” Jim Watzin, director of NASA’s Mars Exploration Program, said in a statement. “We have a historic number of spacecraft operating at the Red Planet. Each offers a unique look at how dust storms form and behave–knowledge that will be essential for future robotic and human missions.”
Mars frequently experiences dust storms year-round, some of which can balloon into regional storms in a matter of days. The storms, which can last weeks or even months at a time, can even grow to the size of the planet. Storms that size happen every three to four Mars years—the equivalent of six to eight Earth years, with the last one occurring in 2007.
The current storm, which continues to grow, is blanketing 14 million square miles of Martian surface, representing about a quarter of the planet.
Mars features a very thin atmosphere that is conducive to dust storms. The most powerful surface winds encountered on Mars would not topple a spacecraft, although they can sandblast dust particles into the atmosphere.
The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter acts as an early warning system for weather events. The orbiter’s wide-angle camera—the Mars Color Imager—gave the Opportunity team advanced warning before the storm hit. The imager, which was built and operated by Malin Space Science Systems in San Diego, creates daily global maps of Mars that tracks how storms evolve.
NASA’s 2001 Mars Odyssey orbiter uses an infrared camera called THEMIS (Thermal Emission Imaging System) to measure the amount of dust below it, while the MAVEN (Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution) orbiter aims to study the behavior in the upper atmosphere and the loss of gas to space.
While across the planet from the storm, NASA’s Curiosity rover is beginning to detect increased tau—the measure of the veil of dusty haze that blots out sunlight during a storm. As of Tuesday, June 12, the tau inside Gale Crater was varying between 1.0 and 2.0—figures that are average for dust season. However, it usually does not reach those levels until later in the year.
The most recent dust storm is the earliest ever observed in the northern hemisphere of Mars. It could take several more days before it is known whether the storm is encircling the entire planet.