NASA’s Mars rover weathers North America-sized dust storm

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A massive dust storm is sweeping across the landscape, blotting out the sun and leaving Opportunity stranded.

"We expect that even if the storm dissipates before becoming a global dust storm, that the amount of dust in Gale will increase over the next several days", Curiosity team member Scott Guzewich wrote in an update last week.

It's hard to complain about Earth weather once you realize just how insane it can get on Mars. However, here the storm could actually help - the dust that blocks out the Sun's rays also absorbs heat, which raises the ambient temperature around the rover.

By Wednesday June 6th, Opportunity was in minimal operations mode because of sharply decreasing power levels.

For the time being, NASA has temporarily shut down any scientific operations, which means turning off most instruments attached to the spacecraft. It's unclear when the storm will eventually subside, but even if the storm ultimately doomed Opportunity it would have already vastly outlived its original mission.

"A dark, perpetual night has settled over the rover's location in Mars' Perseverance Valley", NASA said in a statement. Opportunity, the much older rover that has been on Mars since early 2004, is still doing its thing, but an intense dust storm is making life hard for the aging robot.

'The rover has proved hardier than expected by lasting almost 15 years, despite being designed for a 90-day mission, ' the agency said. The blue dot near the center shows Opportunity's location. The previous storm had an opacity level just above 5.5.

Scientists are anxious the rover won't survive this storm, but there's still hope. The higher that number climbs, the worse the situation becomes for Opportunity.

A self-portrait of NASA's Opportunity rover on Mars taken by the Microscopic Imager on the rover's robotic arm to celebrate its 5,000th Martian day in February 2018.

The swirling dust is impacting Opportunity's solar panels, which it uses to recharge its batteries and power the heaters that allow the rover to function in the extreme cold conditions of Mars.

The storm-which covers an area of more than 7 million square miles-was first detected on Friday by the space agency's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.

On Sunday, Opportunity phoned home, sending a transmission to engineers back on Earth. If the situation continues to worsen, the next step would be to suspend Opportunity's communications with Earth to save additional power.

As with the 2007 dust storm event, there is a very real possibility that should a low-power fault program trip and Opportunity goes to sleep that the rover will not wake up again. The rover needs to balance low levels of charge in its battery with sub-freezing temperatures.

All the same, there are perils involved: the rover can't stay powered-down forever.

The rover (and its twin Spirit) launched separately to Mars in 2003 and landed in January 2004 for what was originally scheduled to be a 90-day mission.

That's because Opportunity - like NASA's other Martian robots - relies on sunlight for power.

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