NASA Loses Contact With Opportunity Rover as Martian Dust Storm Rages On

Things on Mars may have gone from bad to worse for the Opportunity rover. The dust storm on the planet shows no signs of abating, and NASA now says the rover has missed its latest check-in. That suggests its batteries are drained, and that could spell the end for this tenacious little solar-powered rover.

The dust storm began at the end of May as a small disturbance near Opportunity’s location in the Perseverance Valley region. Dust storms frequently happen on Mars, so alarm bells didn’t immediately go off. In the next week, it expanded to engulf the rover, which again, isn’t without precedent. Opportunity came through a dust storm back in 2007 unscathed. However, this storm has now expanded to cover a quarter of the planet, and the rover’s fate is uncertain, according to a NASA teleconference update.

When the storm reached Opportunity, NASA decided to place the robot in low power mode. All science objectives were suspended so the rover could conserve power for communication and internal heating. During a check-in last week, Opportunity reported an internal temperature of -20 degrees Fahrenheit (-29 Celsius). NASA recently tried to contact the rover again, and there was no answer. That doesn’t necessarily mean Opportunity is gone, but things aren’t looking good.

The current state of the dust storm on Mars.

NASA currently believes that Opportunity has shifted into a failsafe mode, which is triggered automatically when the batteries reach critical charge levels. In this mode, only the mission clock remains active. The rover’s brain wakes up periodically to check the charge level of the batteries, then goes back to sleep if it’s still too low. Communication is completely deactivated in this mode.

Even if the storm begins to clear up tomorrow, Opportunity might not come back online. If the solar panels are covered with dust, the rover may not be able to recharge when the sun returns. Even if the panels are still working, the internal heater is not functional in low-power fallback mode. Cold temperatures could damage the batteries, making them inoperable.

The Opportunity rover was only designed to operate on Mars for 90 days, and it recently passed a whopping 15 years. Its sibling Spirit rover succumbed to the Martian cold in 2010. If the current storm does finish off the rover, it’s already far exceeded expectations. Meanwhile, the dust storm is getting closer to Curiosity’s location. That rover is nuclear-powered, so it should be fine as long as it can hunker down someplace safe.