Spaceflight Insider

Inside Opportunity: As dust storm continues to rage Oppy sleeps

A self-portrait of NASA's Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity taken in late March 2014 (right) shows that much of the dust on the rover's solar arrays has been removed since a similar portrait from January 2014 (left). Both were taken by Opportunity's panoramic camera (Pancam). Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell Univ./Arizona State Univ.

Opportunity has entered into a safety power-down mode to allow it to survive the global dust storm that is blanketing Mars. Image Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech / Cornell Univ. / Arizona State Univ.

Our Opportunity Mars Exploration Rover, situated at the Red Planet’s Perseverance Valley located on the western inner rim of Endeavour Crater, continues to remain silent due to the ongoing global dust storm. The storm has placed ‘Oppy’ into a mode designed to protect her in instances just like the one the golf cart-sized rover is currently enduring.

This storm began its march across the face of the planet on May 30. The last contact we had with Opportunity was on Sol 5111 (June 10, 2018), we now think that it is likely Opportunity has experienced a low-power fault and has put herself to sleep. She should wake when the skies eventually clear. We began listening for Opportunity on sol 5112. There has been no signal from Opportunity during any of the potential fault windows up until this point. A formal listening strategy has been in progress since June and will continue for the next several months.

It has now been 7 weeks with no contact from Opportunity. As of our latest Opportunity status report – the storm has not abated. However there are some preliminary signs that indicate the storm may have peaked. Even so it will most likely still be a couple months (possibly late September) before the skies above the Red Planet’s surface clear enough for us to get the precious power that we have been starved of since early June.

This series of simulated images shows the darkening of the sky and dimming Sun due to the dust storm at Opportunity's location on Mars. The right side is the rover's current view. Image Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech / TAMU

This series of simulated images shows the darkening of the sky and dimming Sun due to the dust storm at Opportunity’s location on Mars. The right side is the rover’s current view. Image Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech / TAMU

Unfortunately, more storms could be in store because we are nearly three months away from the start of the summer season (October 16), which is typically when dust storms occur. We continue to believe that our thermal situation is good based on previous experience and current projections. I remain optimistic on our chances of Opportunity’s survival. Hopefully we can get back to the business of exploring the mysteries of Perseverance Valley.

Once we get our power levels back we will continue our work on the enigmatic geomorphology of Perseverance Valley and the various rock types located on its floor. We are now about halfway down the length of Perseverance Valley, which extends some 525 feet (160 meters). Our Athena Science Team is still trying to explain how this feature formed. The concepts regarding its formation have started healthy debates among team members on how much, if any, liquid water was involved in the formation and evolution of Perseverance Valley.

For those of us back on Earth the next several days (July 27-31) will be “prime time” to look up at the planet Mars in the night sky, as it will be at it’s brightest and closest to Earth. This will be the nearest approach of Mars to Earth in 15 years and it will only be a meager 36 million miles (57,936,384 kilometers) away. The average between Earth and Mars is 140 million miles (225,308,160 kilometers). The actual closest approach will occur on July 31 when Mars is 35.8 million miles (56,327,040 kilometers) away from Earth. The Red Planet will not be this close again until October 6, 2020 when it will be 39 million miles (62,764,416 kilometers) away.

So if you are able, look up at Mars these next few days and send some prayers and good wishes Opportunity’s way. We all hope she survives this global dust storm and can soon get back to work unraveling Martian mysteries that have laid hidden for billions of years – soon.

 

The preceding update was written by Jim Rice, the Geology Team Leader / Co-Investigator on the Mars Exploration Rover Project’s Science Team. This article reflects his experiences working on the program

 

 

 

 

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Dr. Jim W. Rice, Jr., is an Astrogeologist at the Planetary Science Institute, he has over 25 years research experience specializing on the surface geology and history of water on Mars. Dr. Rice is currently a Co-Investigator and Geology Team Leader on the Mars Exploration Rover Project (Spirit and Opportunity). Rice also has extensive mission experience as Associate Project Scientist on the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter and Mars Odyssey Orbiter Projects. He has been involved in Mars landing site selection and certification activities for every NASA Mars Mission since Mars Pathfinder. His career includes working for NASA, Astrogeology Headquarters of the United States Geological Survey, the Mars Spaceflight Facility located at Arizona State University and the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory located at the University of Arizona.

Reader Comments

Richard Tilbe

It may be a silly question..why are there no microphones on these craft? It would be really interesting to hear the sounds of dust storms or space itself.

The Polar lander mission had a microphone, as did Phoenix. Polar lander of course crashed due to that unfortunate mix of metric and imperial units and I believe there was a potential fault with the Phoenix microphone which meant it was never switched on. ESAs ExoMars rover is supposedly going to have a microphone though, launching in the next transfer window if it sticks to schedule.

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