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NASA’s Opportunity rover, caught in fierce Martian dust storm, sends message back home

Published Jun 11th, 2018 9:18AM EDT
opportunity rover

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With so much interest in what NASA’s Curiosity rover has been up to recently — with the whole “maybe finding evidence of life” and whatnot — it’s easy to forget that it isn’t the only rover making tracks on the Red Planet. Opportunity, the much older rover that has been on Mars since early 2004, is still doing its thing, but an intense dust storm is making life difficult for the aging robot.

The storm that is currently blanketing Opportunity is absolutely massive in size, with NASA estimating that it covers a whopping 7 million square miles. 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.

In an update on Sunday, June 10th, NASA offered some reassuring news, saying that Opportunity had managed to send a brief message home earlier in the day despite the increasing peril.

“Data from the transmission let engineers know the rover still has enough battery charge to communicate with ground controllers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California,” NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory explained. “Science operations remain suspended.”

But Opportunity isn’t out of the woods yet. NASA describes the situation as “a dark, perpetual night” shrouding the rover’s current home in Perseverance Valley. It’s unclear when the storm will eventually subside, but even if the storm ultimately doomed Opportunity it would have already vastly outlived its original mission. The rover’s initial mission timeline was just 90 days, but it’s currently approaching its 15th full year of operation.

Still, there’s no reason to count Opportunity out just yet. The rover has already survived one other harsh dust storm in its past on Mars. That storm, which covered the majority of the planet in 2007, also hampered its ability to gather vital sunlight and the rover was forced to remain in a low-power standby state around the clock. Let’s hope the skies clear soon.