Science operations for NASA’s Opportunity rover have been temporarily suspended as it waits out a growing dust storm on Mars.
NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter first detected the storm on Friday, June 1. As soon as the orbiter team saw how close the storm was to Opportunity, they notified the rover’s team to begin preparing contingency plans.
In a matter of days, the storm had ballooned. It now spans more than 7 million square miles (18 million square kilometers) — an area greater than North America — and includes Opportunity’s current location at Perseverance Valley. More importantly, the swirling dust has raised the atmospheric opacity, or “tau,” in the valley in the past few days. This is comparable to an extremely smoggy day that blots out sunlight. The rover uses solar panels to provide power and to recharge its batteries.
Opportunity’s power levels had dropped significantly by Wednesday, June 6, requiring the rover to shift to minimal operations.
This isn’t Opportunity’s first time hunkering down in bad weather: in 2007, a much larger storm covered the planet. That led to two weeks of minimal operations, including several days with no contact from the rover to save power. The project’s management prepared for the possibility that Opportunity couldn’t balance low levels of power with its energy-intensive survival heaters, which protect its batteries from Mars’ extreme cold. It’s not unlike running a car in the winter so that the cold doesn’t sap its battery charge. There is a risk to the rover if the storm persists for too long and Opportunity gets too cold while waiting for the skies to clear… [More at link]