NASA's Opportunity has been caught in a large-scale dust storm and marooned since early June but scientists are optimistic the storm is dying down and its beloved vehicle can be coaxed back into action.

By Daniel Herborn

Posted on August 31, 2018

Opportunity was moving through Perseverance Valley when it ground to a halt. The probe sends data back to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. Engineers at the laboratory are optimistic the storm will soon clear and the probe will be exposed to enough sunlight to initiate its recovery procedures. They have drawn up a two-step plan to communicate with the vehicle and hopefully restart it so it can continue moving around Mars.

The storm was first seen on 30 May and was initially thought to be just a temporary setback preventing the veteran rover from further exploration but now NASA staffers are feeling like “frantic parents” as they try to regain communications with Opportunity.

The scientists and engineers have been known to anthropomorphise the Mars rovers and some have been working with Opportunity, which has been on Mars since 2004, for years. On 4 August, NASA engineers played Wham!’s ‘Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go’ to the rover, but apparently not even the campy pizazz of George Michael and company could restart it.

NASA has continued to play space-themed songs in the hope of getting a response but the likes of David Bowie’s classic ‘Life on Mars?’ and ‘Dust in the Wind’ from poodle-haired soft metal group Kansas proved similarly unsuccessful in reviving it.

“We’ll just keep playing until she talks to us,” Michael Staab, an engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, told The website later collated a Spotify playlist of the songs that NASA are playing to the Rover in this most long-distance of serenades.

NASA hopeful this is not a lost opportunity

Opportunity Project Manager John Callas said the sun was starting to reappear through the storm haze over Perserverance Valley, giving scientists hope that there will soon be sufficient sunlight to rechage the rover’s batteries.

“When the tau level (which measures 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,” Callas said.

“Assuming that we hear back from Opportunity, we will begin the process of discerning its status and bringing it back online.”

Scientists have a particular interest in Perseverance Valley as it features landscapes which were possibly carved by flowing water. The valley itself is thought likely to have been formed by water, waterborne debris or powerful winds.

Photo: A mosaic of five images taken by NASA’s Opportunity in Perseverance Valley during 2017. Photo credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech.

NASA lost contact with Opportunity on 10 June and are using data from its Mars Color Imager to estimate the tau levels around where the rover is stationed.

Project Scientists Rich Zurek said the Martian global dust storm “is one of the most extensive on record”, but those working with the probe believe it is now winding down.

“Images of the Opportunity site have shown no active dust storm for some time within 3,000 kilometres (or 1,900 miles) of the rover site.”

For now, the scientists will continue attempting to contact the rover. “If we do not hear back after 45 days, the team will be forced to conclude that the Sun-blocking dust and the Martian cold have conspired to cause some type of fault from which the rover will more than likely not recover,” said Callas.

“At that point our active phase of reaching out to Opportunity will be at an end. However, in the unlikely chance that there is a large amount of dust sitting on the solar arrays that is blocking the Sun’s energy, we will continue passive listening efforts for several months.”

Could a ‘dust devil’ revive the Mars rover?

There is a possibility that Opportunity will be revived by a ‘dust devil’ which could clear its solar arrays. There is a precedent for this unlikely-sounding event; in 2003 battery power levels for both Opportunity and its twin rover, Spirit saw their battery percentage supercharged by one dust-filled Martian night. A dust devil could only revive the vehicle if a buildup of dust is the reason it has stopped moving.

Opportunity has served more than 14 years on Mars and is now somewhat worse for wear. Its 256-megabyte flash memory no longer works and it front steering gave out back in June 2017. Its twin rover, Spirit has been out of commission since 2010 when it got bogged in a sand trap.

Yet the rover has proven far more durable than scientists ever hoped. It was designed for a 90-day mission and originally expected to explore a distance of around 900 metres. Instead, it has logged more than 45 kilometres. “Through thick and thin, the team has seen their rover solider on,” NASA wrote.

Callas remains cautiously optimistic. “In a situation like this you hope for the best but plan for all eventualities,” he said. “We are pulling for our tenacious rover to pull her feet from the fire one more time. And if she does, we will be there to hear her.”

Header photo: An image taken by Opportunity from outside Endeavour Crater. Photo credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell/Arizona State Univ.

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