Spaceflight Insider

Inside Opportunity: Oppy still silent as dust storm begins to settle

NASA's Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity on the surface of the Red Planet NASA image posted on SpaceFlight Insider

Image Credit: NASA

It has been a long 84 days. We last heard from our rover on the slopes of Perseverance Valley back on June 10. However, we are continuing to listen diligently every day during our programmed fault communication windows, as well as through the Deep Space Network Radio Science Receiver. So far however – nothing.

We have also been sending commands at least three times a week to Opportunity in the hopes of acquiring that all important initial “beep” since the dust storm knocked us out of communications with Oppy.

Despite an incorrect media report, Summer is not fading at the Opportunity site in fact it hasn’t even arrived yet! Opportunity’s Summer will begin on October 16, 2018.

NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope photographed Mars on July 18, 2018 as it neared its closest approach to Earth since 2003. It was just 36.9 million miles from Earth. It’s springtime in southern hemisphere, where a dust storm ballooned into a global event in mid-June blanketing the planet. Even so, you can make out Hellas Basin, the bright, large oval area at the lower right. The orange area in the upper center of the image is Arabia Terra. South of that site, running east to west along the equator, are the long dark features known as Sinus Sabaeus (to the east) and Sinus Meridiani (to the west). Opportunity landed in the western portion of Sinus Meridiani, while her twin, Spirit, landed on the other side of the planet in Gusev Crater. The two small moons of Mars, Phobos (right) and Deimos (left), appear in the lower half of the image. Image Credit: NASA

NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope image of Mars on July 18, 2018. The planet was 36.9 million miles from Earth. In the southern hemisphere a dust storm ballooned into a global event in mid-June blanketing the planet. Image Credit: NASA

“There are likely going to be three overlapping fault modes on the vehicle: low power fault, the uploss timer fault, because we’ve gone so long in communicating with the vehicle, and mission clock fault,” said John Callas project manager of NASA’s Mars Exploration Rover. “Now there is a hierarchy to each of those faults, and we will have to unwrap each one of them as we go.”

The high resolution camera called HiRISE (High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment) onboard NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter attempted to image our rover about two weeks ago but was unsuccessful because there was still to much dust suspended in the planet’s atmosphere. It was so bad that no surface markings could be identified.

The HiRISE team will continue its attempts to image Opportunity again in the coming weeks. Our team is hoping that Opportunity will “call home” shortly as the skies continues to clear. The tau (a measure of the amount of dust in the Martian sky) is now estimated to be around 1.6 based on observations from the Mars Color Imager which is also located onboard the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.

So our near term plan will be based upon MARCI tau observations, when the tau is confirmed to be at or below 1.5 for two successive measurements, a 45-day window will begin. At the end of that 45-day window while tau has still remained low, if we have not heard from the vehicle, we will stop our active listening (commanding) mode for Opportunity. If this occurs Opportunity’s grand voyage of exploration may have come to an end due to this dust storm which robbed us of essential solar power. On the other hand, there is a possibility that a large amount of dust could have been deposited on our solar arrays severely reducing our solar power, so we will continue our passive listening efforts for several more months until early next year.

All of our indications from orbit are now showing that this monster of a dust storm is definitely in a state of decline. Surface features are finally starting to become visible again in more and more regions around the planet and the “middle” atmosphere is also starting to cool down.

It should be noted that this year’s storm has been rather unusual in more ways than one. One of the things that set the 2018 dust storm event is that it parked itself right over the Martian equatorial latitudes, which means that it was essentially sitting right on top of where Opportunity is currently stationed.

In terms of some good news NASA HQ has granted us a one year mission extension because our current funding was due to expire on Sept. 30, 2018. Once we pull through this dust storm challenge we can contemplate submitting a three year mission extension proposal to NASA HQ that can keep us running until 2022.

Opportunity and her sister rover, Spirit, have been on the surface of the Red Planet since January of 2004. While Spirit ceased communicating with us back on March 22, 2010, Opportunity has been operating on the surface of Mars for more than 14 and a half years (keep in mind, each rover had an planned operational life of 90 days). 

The first signs that the dust storm was forming were detected on May 30, 2018. It is hoped that when the skies clear, Opportunity will reactivate and begin her studies of Perseverance Valley once again. 

“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,” Callas said. “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.”

Stay tuned to SpaceFlight Insider as we wait for a response from our rover. 





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.

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