The Mars rover Opportunity is still silent, even after the storm on the Red Planet subsided. However, NASA can at least see it in a dark, depressing picture snapped by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. The rover has been going strong since 2004, and the dust storm that began over the summer and lasted for months could prove to be the most difficult challenge the rover has faced so far. The massive storm covered the entire planet in dust and blocked the sun, coating the rover in thick dust and preventing its solar panels from charging it.
Nevertheless, now that the storm has finally subsided and the sky is clear, the Mars Orbiter was able to track and take a picture of the Opportunity rover sitting in the Martian soil with its solar panels covered in dust. This picture of the Opportunity rover is the first contact with it since its radio went silent.
The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter is taking stunning pictures of the planet continually. Last week it passed over Perseverance Valley, which is where Opportunity is sitting. However, the picture of the Opportunity rover is nothing special because it looks like just a few pixels sitting on the planet’s dusty surface.
The last contact NASA had with Opportunity was on June 10, when the storm raged so violently that Opportunity could no longer charge its batteries. It then entered a hibernation state, warmed by only its plutonium-powered heaters. However, nothing guarantees that they still work. Opportunity’s safety circuit is checking once a day to see if the solar panels have charged the battery enough for it to power back up.
“Now that the sun is shining through the dust, it will start to charge its batteries,” Mars Exploration Program Director Jim Watzin explained in a video on Twitter. “And so some time in the coming weeks it will have sufficient power to wake up and place a call back to Earth. But we don’t know when that call will come.”
That’s the best hope of getting back in touch with the rover after the Mars Orbiter snapped a picture of the Opportunity Rover. Still, engineers fear that the solar cells were covered by too much dust or that there was a power fault during the storm that entirely disabled the rover. The NASA team working on the Opportunity Rover has been trying to get in contact with it for weeks, sending extra signals in an attempt to do so. However, nothing guarantees that the rover will ever be able to respond.
Even if the worst happens and NASA doesn’t manage to get back in touch with Opportunity, it’s no secret that the rover has greatly exceeded its lifespan. The Mars rover was expected to function for only 90 days on the Red Planet, but it has been in operation for 14 years. Scientists have been grateful for all the insight Opportunity has provided on the Red Planet. Nevertheless, it would still be great if the rover rises from the dust and phones home again.
Updates on the Opportunity rover can be found here.