Scientists at JPL and NASA are hoping for a sign of life from the 15-year-old Opportunity rover as it quietly rides out “one of the most intense dust storms ever recorded” on the Red Planet. The storm started on May 30 and is expected to rage for about a month or two.
During a NASA/JPL teleconference on Wednesday morning, scientists remained optimistic over the Opportunity’s fate, despite the vehicle being at a “low power fault” and emitting “historically low energy levels.” With the exception of a mission clock—programmed to wake the computer so it can check power levels—all subsystems are turned off.
Currently, because of the vehicle’s limited power, engineers can only receive intermittent contact regarding Opportunity’s status. They have not heard from the rover since Sunday, June 10, which suggests that it has mostly powered down.
On Tuesday, June 9, NASA said the storm, “blankets 14 million square miles (35 million square kilometers) of Martian surface—a quarter of the planet.” Due to the extreme amount of dust, it is believed the vehicle won’t have enough sunlight to charge back up for the next several days, but engineers are hopeful that once the storm passes, the Opportunity will come back to life.
The rover, initially scheduled for a 90-day mission in 2004, has defied NASA’s expectations and rode out a similar storm in 2007 when it went silent for days before powering back up. It’s in “remarkably good health” after all this time, according to engineers, who said its “batteries are at 85% capacity after 15 years.”
Warmth is also an issue for the Opportunity. During the storm, temperatures are expected to plummet to about -36 Degrees. If the rover is down for too long, there’s a chance that it won’t be able to power its heaters and essentially freeze to death, which is what killed its twin, the Spirit, in 2010. They said, however, the dust storm is happening during the Martian summer and won’t likely get below Opportunity’s temperature threshold of -55 Degrees.
The Curiosity rover is not currently affected by the dust storm.