Science

Global Dust Storm On Mars Could Be Fatal For NASA’s Opportunity Rover

Martian Meteorite Mars
karlfrey / Pixabay

The Opportunity rover is the longest-lived robot on Mars. Thanks to it, we have been able to learn so much interesting information about the Red Planet – its soil, atmosphere and much more. However, a global dust storm on Mars has been raging since June, which is bad news for NASA’s Opportunity rover.

The longest-lived rover

Opportunity is the size of a golf-cart and it was launched in June 2003 by NASA, with a mission to go to Mars and learn about it as much as possible. The rover reached the Red Planet in January 2004.

Interestingly, the rover has lasted until now, reaching 15 years old, even though scientists estimated it to survive for only three months. It lasted on the surface of the Red Planet thanks to the solar power that it uses, and crossed miles and miles of Mars, making it a more familiar neighbor to us.

Global dust storm on Mars

The global dust storm on Mars has been raging for almost two months. That led to Opportunity falling asleep, and shutting down on June 10. Since then, NASA hasn’t received any information from its veteran rover, since it couldn’t phone home.

Global dust storms appear every once in a while, about every couple of years. They cover the entire planet in a reddish haze. However, this one could be one of the most intense storms that has ever been recorded, as NASA wrote.

“This is the worst storm Opportunity has ever seen, and we’re doing what we can, crossing our fingers, and hoping for the best,” Steve Squyres, a planetary scientist at Cornell University and leader of the rover mission, told A.J.S. Rayl for a recent Planetary Society blog post.

The global dust storm on Mars managed to cover the solar panels of NASA’s Opportunity rover from which it receives solar light, coating them in dust. The rover’s ability to receive power and use electrical energy has been greatly decreased.

Winters are quite scary on Mars, with temperatures able to drop to -100 degrees Fahrenheit at the equator. That said, such frigid temperatures can be fatal for the electrical components of the Opportunity rover. Nevertheless, Opportunity is equipped with small buttons of nuclear material – plutonium-238, which makes it able to keep its circuitry warmed up. However, it’s unknown how durable they are and how long they will last.

Low batteries are troublesome too

It’s quite risky if Opportunity runs out of battery. If the batteries are inactive for a long time, Opportunity will lose more electrical storage capacity. Also, if the storm doesn’t stop soon and the dust doesn’t blow off the solar panels, there will be the possibility of the batteries getting “brown out.”

Another NASA machine – Spirit – also stopped talking to NASA back in 2010 during a Martian winter. Nevertheless, NASA’s engineers tried to contact Spirit for more than a year before quitting.

Hopefully NASA’s Opportunity Rover wakes up soon, and the global dust storm on Mars weakens enough to end in the near future.