Science

Is All Hope For The Opportunity Rover Lost?

Hope For the Opportunity Rover
Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell/Arizona State Univ.

NASA hasn’t heard from the Opportunity rover for months. The rover went into sleep mode after Mars was covered by a global dust storm which blocked the sun from reaching the planet’s surface. Since Opportunity uses solar energy to power itself, it couldn’t recharge, so it entered hibernation mode. Now months later, with the storm settling down, there is still no sign of life, so is all hope for the Opportunity rover lost?

According the latest update from NASA, it’s not. The space agency said the Red Planet’s upcoming windy season could help clear the dust from the Opportunity rover, allowing it to recharge its panels.

“A windy period on Mars—known to Opportunity’s team as “dust-clearing season”—occurs in the November-to-January time frame and has helped clean the rover’s panels in the past,” NASA said.

Meanwhile, engineers from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) who are working on the rover’s operations are trying to increase the number of commands sent to Opportunity. They’re listening for any potential call back to Earth as they hope for the Opportunity rover to become operational again.

The last time NASA heard from the 14-year-old rover was on June 10, at which time Opportunity was in Mars’ Perseverance Valley. NASA said it’s likely that the global dust storm that raged during June resulted in Opportunity’s solar panels being covered in layers of dust. The space agency is assuming the rover went into hibernation mode, which it’s designed to do until the storm stops.

“No one can tell just how much dust has been deposited on its panels,” NASA said in its update this week, but its team remains hopeful.

A month ago, the HiRISE camera from NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) captured an image of the rover on the Red Planet’s surface. At the time, the space agency thought not all hope for the Opportunity rover was lost and that it would find a way to recharge its solar panels once the storm cleared.

“The Sun is breaking through the haze over Perseverance Valley, and soon there will be enough sunlight present that Opportunity should be able to recharge its batteries,” Opportunity Project Manager John Callas said in a statement last month. “When the tau level [a measure of the amount of particulate matter in the Martian sky] dips below 1.5, we will begin a period of actively attempting to communicate with the rover by sending it commands via the antennas of NASA’s Deep Space Network. Assuming that we hear back from Opportunity, we will begin the process of discerning its status and bringing it back online.”

The Opportunity rover has lasted much longer than the 90-Martian-day lifespan originally expected. The golf-cart-sized rober was launched in 2003 with another rover called Spirit as part of NASA’s Mars Exploration Rover (MER) mission.