Even after four long weeks, Mars is still engulfed in a massive dust storm that has covered almost a quarter part of the Red Planet. The storm, which began on May 30, has grown to encircle the entire planet in a few weeks time. It has even put NASA’s Opportunity rover in deep sleep.
The solar-powered Opportunity has currently entered into a sort of hibernation mode as it hasn’t been able to recharge its batteries due to lack of sunlight. There’s so much of dust in the air that it has become impossible for the rover to gather sufficient energy to maintain communication.
The low battery level has put the rover into a low power fault mode in which all the rover’s systems shut down except for the mission clock that wakes up the rover at regular intervals and keeps a tab on its power levels to check if it can communicate.
The last time NASA officials received a signal from the 15-year-old Opportunity was on Sol 5111 (June 10, 2018). A ‘sol’ is a day on Mars that is 24 hours, 39 minutes and 35 seconds long. The contact was lost on June 12.
Dr. James Rice, co-investigator and geology team leader on NASA projects including Opportunity, is hopeful that Opportunity is still fine and will be back to life once the dust storm gets over.
According to Dr. Rice, the timing of the storm could work in Opportunity’s favor as the warm Martian Spring could help keep the rover’s electronics from becoming too cold during the night. During the 2007 dust storm, Opportunity went into the sleeping mode for some days due to low power levels but was back into action again soon. Launched in 2004, Opportunity is currently the longest-serving rover on the Martian landscape.
Meanwhile, NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover, which is located on the other side of Mars from Opportunity, remains unaffected by the dust storm and is well doing its work.