NASA researchers fear the space agency’s Opportunity rover may soon reach the end of its life as a major Mars dust storm continues to blot out the sun. As we reported last week, a Martian dust storm bigger than North America is currently interfering with the rover’s ability to operate on the Red Planet, and the rover has now put itself into a deep sleep mode.
The Mars dust storm was spied by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter’s team on June 1, which then alerted the Opportunity rover’s team. NASA’s Martian rovers are vulnerable to such storms due to the way they harvest energy: from the Sun using solar panels. Dust storms reduce the rover’s access to sunlight and therefore its ability to charge.
Dust storms aren’t unusual on Mars, and researchers were ready with a temporary solution — Opportunity rover can be put into a low-power mode. However, the rover must maintain some degree of activity in order to generate heat, which helps combat Mars’ bitter cold environment. Several days have passed and the storm still rages on.
Opportunity has had a long life on Mars, putting in 15 years of service for the space agency. In an update posted on June 12, NASA said that its Opportunity team had attempted to contact the rover but, unfortunately, didn’t get a response back. As such, NASA says it now believes Opportunity has put itself into a “low power fault mode,” which means that only its mission clock remains active; all subsystems are currently powered down.
While in this low power state, the mission clock will wake up the rover’s computer ever so often to check on the power levels. If the batteries aren’t charged adequately, the rover will go back into sleep mode. NASA reported on June 10 that the Mars dust storm was getting worse. The Opportunity team believes the rover’s batteries’ collective charge is below 24 volts. At this rate, NASA says it will probably take at least a week before there’s adequate levels of sunlight to recharge.
Concerns include whether Opportunity will stay above its operating temperature, as well as whether the charge level will stay adequate enough to maintain the aforementioned mission clock. If the charge dips too low, the rover won’t know what time it is, though there are systems in place to deal with that.
That said, this isn’t the first dust storm Opportunity has encountered, and the rover has proven very durable in the past. NASA had only intended the rover to operate for a 90-day mission, something it has exceeded by more than a decade.