Martian Dust Storm Sends NASA's Opportunity Rover into Hibernation Mode

With dust clouds obscuring the sky, by Wednesday, June 6, Opportunity's battery levels had already "dropped significantly" NASA says.

NASA's Opportunity rover may not have to worry about running into traffic congestion on Mars, but vast dust storms are definitely an occupational hazard.

The U.S. space agency reports in a Sunday afternoon, June 10 update that the data received from Opportunity informed engineers that the rover has enough battery charge to communicate with controllers based in Pasadena, California. The small blue dot in the below image of the storm (click to enlarge) indicates Opportunity's location in Perseverance Valley. If the storm lasts too long, the main concern will be the Martian cold, a danger Opportunity has faced in the past, NASA officials said.

It was during that 2007 storm that Opportunity's handlers anxious about the rover's ability to power its vital survival heaters with the low power levels caused by that dust storm. Conducting research is pretty tough with dust and debris flying around, but being caught in the storm isn't just a bummer from a scientific standpoint; Opportunity's power comes from batteries linked to solar panels, and those solar panels don't work well when the skies aren't clear.

As of June 10, the storm had almost doubled the level of atmospheric opacity, or darkness, experienced by the rover in 2007, measured in tau.

The dust has blotted out the Sun in many regions, including Opportunity's current location at Perseverance Valley.

Opportunity has been exploring Mars since 2004, but it runs on solar power.

NASA's Opportunity rover has survived on Mars much longer than originally intended, but the planet is testing the little robot right now. And it's seen dust storms bigger than the one it's experiencing now. 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.

In fact, Opportunity has been surviving for 15 years. During southern summer, sunlight warms dust particles, lifting them higher into the atmosphere and creating more wind.

The latest data transmission from Opportunity on Sunday morning showed the rover's temperature to be about -20°F (-29°C).

If that is not enough, and power levels drop to a specific, low level, Opportunity would trip what is known as a low-power fault program, disabling the rover's batteries and putting Opportunity into sleep mode until sufficient available energy returns to wake it up.

The storm formed above the rover beginning on June 3 and has gotten much worse since then. Part of the equipment onboard is a survival heater system, which kick in to keep the batteries at a certain temperature rather than allowing them to get unduly cold.

Presently, engineers will monitor Opportunity's power levels closely in the week to come.

The hardest working rover on Mars is fighting for its robotic life on the red planet.

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



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