The Dust Storm on Mars has Cleared Away

The Dust Storm on Mars has Cleared Away

Despite the clearing of the Martian dust storm, the Opportunity Rover has failed to call back home.

Dust storms are quite common on the red planet of our Solar System. Having said that, we are not really sure about the events that lead to these planet-engulfing storms and this could lead to some serious issues in the future as a manned mission to Mars is one of the most-wanted ventures right now in the astronomical community. One of the biggest dust storms in the history of the planet was detected on 30th May 2018 by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) of NASA. The 15-year old Opportunity Rover went into ‘sleep’ mode following the global coverage of the dust storm in order to survive the extreme conditions. However, it did send some images before sleeping which showed how the Martian sky darkened as the dust storm enveloped the planet.

Basically, Opportunity is a solar-powered rover which relies solely on sunlight for carrying out its duties. NASA contacted this rover for the last time on 10th June after which it didn’t answer the check-in calls from the agency. The first of these check-in calls was attempted on the 12th of June. At that time, the engineers of the U.S. space agency claimed that the rover is in a low-power mode. In this state, it wakes up only periodically to check whether its batteries have enough charge to make a call home. The officials of NASA issued a statement on 20th June which said,

A recent analysis of the rover’s long-term survivability in Mars’ extreme cold suggests Opportunity’s electronics and batteries can stay warm enough to function. Regardless, the project doesn’t expect to hear back from Opportunity until the skies begin to clear over the rover. That doesn’t stop them from listening for the rover every day.”

Being a nuclear-powered rover, Curiosity was monitoring the dust storm continuously. It offered a glimmer of hope for the Opportunity Rover when the scientists at NASA finally saw the storm clearing away, after three months. The officials of NASA did acknowledge the severity of the situation yet they are optimistic that the Opportunity can overcome this significant challenge as it has been doing for the past 15 years. John Callas, the Project Manager of the Opportunity Rover at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory of NASA, explained their plan of action in the following words:

If we do not hear back after 45 days, the team will be forced to conclude that the Sun-blocking dust and the Martian cold have conspired to cause some type of fault from which the rover will more than likely not recover. At that point, our active phase of reaching out to Opportunity will be at an end. Passive listening efforts will continue for several months because of the unlikely chance that there is a large amount of dust sitting on the solar arrays that is blocking the Sun’s energy.”

Opportunity was sent to Mars in 2003 alongside its twin rover called Spirit. Both of these robotic vehicles were designated the task of exploring Martian surface and transmitting the data back to the Earth. Originally, the estimated time for their mission was 90 days and they were to cover a distance of 1000 meters. Having said that, both the rovers comfortably outlived all the expectations. The journey of Spirit came to an end in 2009 (formally in 2011) after it got stuck in soft soil. On the other hand, Opportunity is going on 60 times its planned life despite losing its 256-megabyte flash memory and front steering.

It has made some amazing discoveries in its 45-kilometer journey across the Martian surface. The most important achievement of this rover is that it found evidence of water on Mars. Similarly, it traced conditions that are suitable for sustaining microbial life. Consequently, a lot of people want the rover to continue operating. The popularity of the hashtags #WakeUpOppy and #SaveOppy on Twitter is an evident proof of the feelings of the people. Mike Siebert, a Former Earth-based Rover Driver and Flight Director, is leading that group of people who feel that the timeframe of 45 days is simply too short. He expressed his views through a tweet in which he said,

100% Grade A B.S. the amount of time given to recover Opportunity is woefully insufficient. Whomever made this decision is a coward.”

Get a glimpse of the Martian dust storm for yourself:

Computer Scientist by qualification who loves to read, write, eat, and travel

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