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14 June 2018, 04:02 | Justin Tyler
The dark streak is from the impact destabilizing the ground. NASA JPL University of Arizona
NASA'sMars Reconnaissance Orbiter first detected the storm on Friday, June 1st, and immediately notified the Opportunity team to begin preparing contingency plans. The solar-powered rover has been in operation for almost 15 years - but if its batteries dip below 24 volts of electrical charge, it's programmed to put almost all its systems into sleep mode and wait until the batteries are sufficiently charged up. That's where things currently stand, although John Callas of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory said "we're likely in a low-power fault right now", which implies that the rover will skip its next check-in.
Engineers last received a transmission from the 15-year-old Opportunity on Sunday morning.
Maxwell, who left NASA in 2013 for Google, notes in the spirit of anthropomorphizing common to those involved with rovers, "She did more than anyone expected from her or ever could have expected from her, and if we can all say that at the end of our lives, then we'll be as lucky as she is". A major 2007 dust storm had an opacity level, or tau, above 5.5 while the current storm had an estimated tau of almost 11 as of June 6.
The main concern is dust could temporarily cover its optical instruments, managers said.
"Each observation of these large storms brings us one step closer to being able to model them", Zurek said, and his colleague Watson noted that "we're fortunate that we have a record number of operational spacecraft at Mars" to make those observations. The doctors are telling you to give it time, and the vital signs are good. "We are concerned and we aren't out of the woods yet". "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". As of June 10, it covered more than 15.8 million square miles (41 million square kilometers) - about the area of North America and Russian Federation combined.
This is the area Opportunity has been observing in order to learn what created the valley, which is a channel carved in the rim by Endeavor Crater. Opportunity has been examining whether the Perseverance Valley geological feature was carved out by flowing water, wind erosion or both. Learning how it was formed could provide insight into the history of the Red Planet.
Flight controllers tried late Tuesday night to contact Opportunity, but the rover did not respond. The fear now is that it will run so low on battery charge that it will have to disable its master clock, and it may grow too cold without proper heating, and it may never recover if the dust storm dumps debris all over its vital solar panels. And the Opportunity rover is in the middle of it. Right now, the rover is at about negative 20 degrees Fahrenheit.
Opportunity and its twin rover, Spirit, landed in January 2004.
"At this point, we're in a waiting mode, listening every day for possible signals", he said.
Although the rover needs solar energy, it has about 8 watts of thermal energy available in its insulated box.
"We would not want to have a crew operating remotely from their base and be caught off guard with a storm like this and have difficulty getting back home", said Jim Watzin, director of the Mars Exploration Program at NASA. At most, it could endure for a month or two. It's also in a region that isn't as darkened as much by the storm.
Another positive is the rare chance to study this storm.
The mission scientists are intrigued: Why do these massive widespread events happen in some years but not all? Opportunity weathered a planet-wide storm in 2007.
The storms' cyclical nature, however, are poorly understood.
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