The Opportunity rover has got caught up in a massive Mars dust storm and has stopped responding to communication attempts from NASA. The Space Agency believes that the rover’s batteries have reached a critically low level which would signal it to turn everything off except the mission clock.
The rover is programmed to intermittently wake-up to check its battery levels but scientist are concerned it may take some time for it to reach a workable charge level. Despite the Opportunity being out of action, NASA is excited by the scientific opportunities that the storm presents.
Storm offers perfect science opportunity
"This is the ideal storm for Mars science," said Jim Watzin, director of NASA's Mars Exploration Program at the agency’s headquarters in Washington. "We have a historic number of spacecraft operating at the Red Planet. Each offers a unique look at how dust storms form and behave -- knowledge that will be essential for future robotic and human missions."
"This is the ideal storm for Mars science."
Dust storms are common on Mars but these super large storm events are more rare, estimated to occur only once every 3-4 Martian years (6-8 Earth years). The last major storm event occurred in 2007.
The dust storms help scientists understand the Martian climate and how the landscape responds to intense weather conditions "Each observation of these large storms brings us closer to being able to model these events -- and maybe, someday, being able to forecast them," said Rich Zurek, chief scientist for the Mars Program Office at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.
"That would be like forecasting El Niño events on Earth, or the severity of upcoming hurricane seasons." NASA reported that the dust storm is one of the most intense Martian storms ever observed.
As of June 1,0 the intense weather activity has covered an area more than 41 million square kilometers, which is about the size of North America and Russia combined. The storm has created so much dust that it has blocked almost all sunlight, which means the rover is stuck in night-like conditions for the moment.
NASA hopes to be able to forecast Mars weather conditions
NASA's held a media teleconference which discussed the science opportunities the massive Martian dust storm presents.
On the call were John Callas, the Opportunity rover's project manager, Rich Zurek, the Mars Program Office chief scientist, Jim Watzin, the director of the Mars Exploration Program at NASA and Dave Lavery, the program executive at NASA Headquarters for the Opportunity and Curiosity rovers.
NASA has another rover on Mars as well as two flying probes that are equipped with specialized equipment that will send data back to Earth.
The storm may rage on for weeks or even months but the Opportunity has a good record for surviving tough conditions.