A global dust storm on Mars threatens the future of NASA's Rover Opportunity, the most durable robot on the planet.
Launched on Mars in June 2003, the car-sized vehicle landed in January 2004 and was scheduled to last three months. Today, the Rover is 15 years old and has rolled more than a marathon across the surface of the Red Planet with solar energy.
But Opportunity now seems to be in trouble.
Opportunity fell asleep on June 10th and has not phoned home due to the long-lasting global dust storm that has been raging for nearly two months now.
Global dust storms appear every few years and envelop the planet in a dull red mist, but NASA said it was "one of the most intense" ever recorded.
"This is the worst storm Opportunity has ever seen, and we do what we can, keeping our fingers crossed and hoping for the best," said Steve Squyres, a planetary scientist at Cornell University and head of Rover. Mission, AJS Rayl said for a blog entry by the Planetary Society.
Why the Dust Storm Endangers Opportunity
The marsh weather event not only blocked the light for Opportunity's solar panels, but also coated it with fine dust. This one-two punch has dramatically reduced Rover's ability to store and use electrical energy.
Cold is a big problem on Mars, where winter temperatures near the equator can drop to -100 degrees Fahrenheit. Such cold can shrink metal pieces in electronic circuits and snap them into place.
Small buttons made of nuclear material called plutonium-238 help keep Opportuny's circuits warm, but the stuff does not last forever and is well outdated – so it's not hot enough to fully protect the Rovers' systems. This means that Opportunity still needs power to keep its battery charged, running heaters, and talking to NASA's mission control on Earth.
Another problem is the too low drainage of the batteries. The longer they are inactive, the more electrical storage capacity they lose. If the storm does not break soon and Mars Dust devils do not blow away the dust from Opportunity's solar panels, NASA says there is a possibility that the batteries "blow" or suddenly fall into tension.
If that happens or the Rover is unable to recover from various "failure modes," Opportunity will join the ranks of Spirit, its almost identical sister rover.
Spirit stopped in March 2010 during a Marswinter to speak with NASA. Engineers tried to get in touch with Spirit for more than a year before giving up. (The Ghost is probably just another dead robot on the red planet.)
Now to the Good News
NASA said in a press release dated August 16 that "there are reasons to be optimistic" as the storm worsened seems. This could mean that enough sunlight will soon hit Opportunity's solar cells to recharge the batteries and call home.
The agency also said that the batteries were in a "relatively good" state before the storm, so "there probably will not be too much degradation." Dust storms also tend to warm the environment, so they can better prevent the cold that destroys the circulation.
The opportunity, however, is "not yet out of the woods". A NASA official told Business Insider that there was no update on the status of the rover, which means the agency has not heard anything yet.
This is one of the longest periods in which a solar-powered robot ever wintered on Mars to save energy. The opportunity has already increased its technical life by a decade and a half – and it is not getting any younger.
"Even if engineers back up Opportunity, there is a real possibility that the rover will not be the same," NASA said. "Nobody will know how the rover is doing until he speaks."