NASA has issued its latest update on the Mars dust storm impacting one of its two Martian rovers, Opportunity. According to the space agency, researchers continue to see signs that the global dust storm is calming down. NASA expects enough sunlight will soon make its way to Opportunity rover for it to recharge its batteries, but questions remain over whether it’s in any condition to do so.
Earlier this month, NASA revealed that the Mars dust storm is slowly abating, a process that may still have weeks or months left before conditions are clear. Opportunity rover has been in an emergency low-power mode to preserve what little power remains in its batteries.
A certain level of sunlight is necessary for the rover’s solar panels to recharge its power cells, at which point the rover will automatically initiate its recovery procedures. This assumes, though, that the solar-powered vehicle is still in any condition to perform these actions.
The team managing Opportunity rover has already started preparing for the dust storm’s end. NASA explains that a two-step plan has been developed that will give the highest chance of restoring communication with the Mars rover. This will involve using the space agency’s Deep Space Network to send commands to Opportunity, which may respond to them. If it does, the team will then learn the rover’s status and get it back online.
The team last heard from Opportunity on June 10, after which point the dust storm was too severe for the rover to continue charging. The vehicle’s health remains unknown; though it will likely be able to recover from the dust itself, the prolonged period of running at such a low charge may have caused irreversible damage to the batteries.
NASA previously listed a series of potential issues that could arise, including a permanent reduction in the rover’s battery capacity. Assuming that is the case, the batteries may not be able to hold enough charge for the rover to complete its missions — or they may be inadequate for keeping the rover adequately warm during Mars’ coldest months.
In its most recent statement, NASA explained that Opportunity will be given 45 days to communicate with its team after sunlight levels are adequately restored. If the team doesn’t hear back from Opportunity during that period of time, the space agency will assume that something has impacted the rover in a way that prevents its recovery.
NASA warns that Opportunity may never be the same even if it does restore communications with the team. Though the rover may soon be capable of communicating, an unexpected issue may impact its future ability to carry on with its missions.