Massive dust storm threatens Mars rover Opportunity | News | DW | 13.06.2018
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Massive dust storm threatens Mars rover Opportunity

NASA experts worry that cold temperatures and a lack of sunlight could damage the rover Opportunity. The space agency has not been able to communicate with the rover for several days.

An unprecedented dust storm on the surface of the planet Mars has enveloped NASA's oldest working rover Opportunity, the space agency said on Wednesday.

The first indicators of the storm, which already covers one-quarter of Mars, were reported on May 30. It is expected to encircle the planet in another few days.

Stuck in round-the-clock darkness, Opportunity entered an indefinite sleep mode, in an attempt to conserve battery power. The rover, which is powered by solar panels, usually performs this sleep-mode function only overnight.

But the giant dust storm could leave the rover without a chance to power itself for a long time. NASA said it could be weeks or even months until the sky clears enough for sunlight to reach the Martian surface.

Mars is a cold and barren planet, with a thin atmosphere and desert-like conditions, which make it prone to dust storms that can last for months.

Read more: Our first InSight into the interior of Mars

The Opportunity could survive

Although NASA's Mars rovers were designed to last only 90 days, the Opportunity has been operating for 15 years. Flight controllers tried late Tuesday night to contact Opportunity, but the rover did not respond.

NASA officials said Wednesday that they were still hopeful the rover could survive the storm. Experts at the space agency said that Opportunity was in excellent shape. Their primary concern was that the rover's optic lenses could gather a large amount of dust.

Read more: Will we evolve to adapt to life in space?

"By no means are we out of the woods here," said John Callas, the Opportunity project manager at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. "This storm is threatening, and we don't know how long it will last, and we don't know what the environment will be like once it clears."

Another hazard for the rover could be temperature. Freezing temperatures are believed to be what damaged Opportunity's twin rover, the Spirit.

A valuable asset for NASA

The rover Opportunity has contributed to important scientific findings at NASA, which include evidence that Mars may have held conditions favorable for sustaining microbial life.

More recently, the rover has been examining the possibility that geological feature of the red planet's Perseverance Valley was carved out by flowing water, wind erosion or both.

In 2007, the Opportunity was caught in a massive dust storm that kept it silent for a few days. But the resilient rover jumped back into action after awakening from a deep self-protecting slumber.

jcg/se (Reuters, dpa, AFP)

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