NASA rover knocked out as gigantic dust storm envelops Mars

Mars in 2001 as it typically appeared and how the red planet looked after a global dust storm appeared .       NASA  JPL-Caltech  MSSS

The storm could actually become a global tempest in the days to come, according to NASA.

For now, Mars' oldest working rover is stuck in the middle of the raging storm, in complete round-the-clock darkness.

"We think we can ride this out for a while".

But what it's facing is formidable: Though it weathered what Space.com called an "even larger" dust storm for two weeks in 2007, the atmospheric opacity level then registered around a 5.5.

Mars experiences regional dust storms annually, but only occasionally do they expand to engulf the entire planet.

Opportunity is a plucky little robot that was only created to survive for 90 days on the surface of Mars but has kept on trundling for 15 years. If enough dust covers the solar panels of the aging robot, Opportunity could be in danger, as scientists have said in the past.

The opacity of the storm, an indication of how effectively it is blocking out sunlight, is at record levels for Opportunity, making it hard for the rover's solar arrays to fully charge its batteries.

Operators at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) attempted to contact the rover on Tuesday but did not receive a signal, which means the craft has likely entered a "low power fault mode" wherein all systems, save a mission clock, are shut down. The solar-powered rover has been in operation for almost 15 years - but if its batteries dip below 24 volts of electrical charge, it's programmed to put almost all its systems into sleep mode and wait until the batteries are sufficiently charged up. In that case, the computer is programmed to periodically check to see if the sun is up and if so, to phone home.

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The steadily dropping power levels forced mission managers to suspend science operations on June 8. "We're concerned but we're hopeful that the storm will clear and the rover will begin to communicate to us".

Dust storms on Mars start with sunlight.

That said, things may get worse before they get better. "You have the doctors telling you that, 'Okay, you just have to give it time and she'll wake up.' All the vital signs are good, so it's just waiting it out", Callas said.

Once it passes, the storm may leave Opportunity's solar panels covered in a thick layer of dust, such that the rover won't be able to gather enough power to recover.

Opportunity has lived an wonderful life on Mars.

It's had its share of problems over the years - its flash memory no longer works, two instruments have failed and problems with its two front wheels have forced it to drive backwards most of the time - but the hardy robot has continued to collect valuable science, setting new records with every sol.

Artist's conception of a Mars Exploration Rover, which included Opportunity and Spirit. The rovers found evidence of past volcanic activity, water flows, and meteor impacts.

As of June 12, the tau value for Opportunity's dust storm was estimated at almost 11!

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