NASA's media teleconference discussed a massive Martian dust storm affecting operations of the agency's Opportunity rover and what scientists can learn from the various missions studying this unprecedented event. The storm could actually become a global tempest in the days to come, according to NASA. For comparison, a major 2007 dust storm had an opacity level, or tau, above 5.5 while the current storm had an estimated tau of 10.8 as of 6 June.
"We think we can ride this out for a while".
Right now, the vast plain Opportunity is exploring - Meridiani Planum - is blanketed in the most intense dust storm that NASA scientists have ever witnessed. Each rover was created to only last 90 days, yet Opportunity has exceeded its operating plan by 14 years and 48 days. It could be weeks or even months, though, until the sky clears enough for sunlight to reach the Martian surface and recharge Opportunity's batteries through its solar panels.
Engineers are optimistic Opportunity will survive its trial by dust, but given its age and their emotional attachment to the hardy robot, they will not rest easy until skies clear enough for power levels to rise, allowing the rover to finally phones home.
An attempt to contact Opportunity Tuesday was not successful. That clock is programmed to wake up the rover periodically and check its power levels to see if it can call home. If the batteries are insufficiently charged, the computer will again enter a sleep mode, the same mode used each night to power down the rover. "We're concerned but we're hopeful that the storm will clear and the rover will begin to communicate to us". Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and two other NASA spacecraft orbiting the Red Planet - Odyssey and MAVEN - routinely support rovers on the ground.
That said, things may get worse before they get better.
The steadily dropping power levels forced mission managers to suspend science operations on June 8.
A senior official there said: "It's like having a loved one in coma in the hospital". But if it's your 97-year old grandmother, you're going to be very concerned. "By no means are we out of the wood here".
Opportunity has lived an fantastic life on Mars.
It's had its share of problems over the years - its flash memory no longer works, two instruments have failed and problems with its two front wheels have forced it to drive backwards most of the time - but the hardy robot has continued to collect valuable science, setting new records with every sol. Opportunity's twin, Spirit, which also touched down on the Red Planet in January 2004, apparently froze to death after getting stuck in thick sand in 2010. Imaging from orbit suggested that the valley may have been cut by flowing water, and the rover is being sent to look for evidence of that.
"Keep in mind, we're talking about a rover that's been working at Mars, hanging in there, for 15 years and designed just for 90 days. The same swirling dust that blocks out sunlight also absorbs heat, raising the ambient temperature surrounding Opportunity".