The massive Mars dust storm is waning. Now, will Opportunity wake?

The aging solar-powered rover has been silent for months

Perseverance Valley

DO NOT GO GENTLY  We may soon know if the recent dust storm that enveloped Mars has killed the Opportunity rover, which has been hunkered down in Perseverance Valley (pictured above on July 7, 2017) for months.  


With Martian skies finally clearing after a massive dust storm, NASA engineers have their fingers crossed that the Opportunity rover will soon phone home.

Opportunity has been hunkered down in Mars’ Perseverance Valley since early June, caught in a storm that has grown to envelop the entire Red Planet. Since so little sunlight can reach the rover’s solar panels through the haze, Opportunity is riding out the storm in sleep mode (SN Online: 6/13/18). No one’s heard from the rover since June 10.

But observations from NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter show that the dust is now settling. As soon as Opportunity is bathed in enough sunlight to wake up, NASA ground control will start trying to communicate with the rover. If the team doesn’t hear back within 45 days, it will assume that Opportunity didn’t survive the storm and stop sending signals to it. But just in case there’s simply a thick mantel of debris covering the rover’s solar panels — which a dust devil might later sweep off — NASA will keep listening for any signs of life from Opportunity over the next several months (SN Online: 4/10/12).

Even if the team does hear back from Opportunity, there’s no guarantee that the vehicle will be able to continue its exploration. The dust and cold of the storm may have caused enough damage to put it out of commission.

If Perseverance Valley does become Opportunity’s final resting place, it seems fitting. The rover’s had one heck of a run. Built to trundle about one kilometer over a 90-day mission, Opportunity has trekked more than 45 kilometers over the last 14 years, making discoveries like evidence of past water along its way (SN: 2/22/14, p. 10).

SERIOUS STORM Before and after movies of the Red Planet taken by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter reveal how a recent dust storm has swaddled the entire planet in dirt. MSSS/JPL-Caltech/NASA

Previously the staff writer for physical sciences at Science News, Maria Temming is the assistant managing editor at Science News Explores. She has bachelor's degrees in physics and English, and a master's in science writing.

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