NASA’s storm-silenced rover marks 15th anniversary on Mars

NASA’s Opportunity rover marks ‘bittersweet’ 15th anniversary on Mars despite having been silent since a gigantic dust storm last June

  •  Opportunity landed on Jan. 24, 2004, and logged more than 28 miles
  • Fell silent during a global dust storm June 2018, as there was so much dust in the Martian atmosphere that sunlight could not reach Opportunity’s solar panels
  • Flight controllers are still sending commands to the rover in hopes of a response 
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NASA’s Opportunity rover is silently marking the 15th anniversary of its touchdown on Mars.

The spacecraft hasn’t been heard from since a global dust storm last June. 

The six wheeler – about the size of a golf cart – logged more than 28 miles (45 kilometers) on the red planet before falling silent. 

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Opportunity landed on Jan. 24, 2004, and logged more than 28 miles (45 kilometers) before falling silent during a global dust storm June 2018. There was so much dust in the Martian atmosphere that sunlight could not reach Opportunity’s solar panels for power generation

There was so much dust in the Martian atmosphere that sunlight could not reach Opportunity’s solar panels to generate power.

Flight controllers are still sending commands to the rover in hopes of a response. 

But project manager John Callas says the longer the blackout lasts, the less likely contact will be made. 

He called Thursday’s anniversary bittersweet.

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“Fifteen years on the surface of Mars is testament not only to a magnificent machine of exploration but the dedicated and talented team behind it that has allowed us to expand our discovery space of the Red Planet,” he said.  

“However, this anniversary cannot help but be a little bittersweet as at present we don’t know the rover’s status. 

‘We are doing everything in our power to communicate with Opportunity, but as time goes on, the probability of a successful contact with the rover continues to diminish.”

Opportunity fell silent back in June, with no way to power its solar battery as dust continued to block out the sun. The animation shows how the rover (centre) was directly in the path of the raging storm

Opportunity’s last communication with Earth was received June 10, 2018, as a planet-wide dust storm blanketed the solar-powered rover’s location on the western rim of Perseverance Valley, eventually blocking out so much sunlight that the rover could no longer charge its batteries. 

Although the storm eventually abated and the skies over Perseverance cleared, the rover has not communicated with Earth since then. 

WHAT IS THE OPPORTUNITY ROVER?

NASA launched the Opportunity rover as part of its Mars Exploration Rover program in 2004. 

It landed on Mars’ Meridiani Planum plain near its equator on January 25, 2004.

Opportunity was only supposed to stay on Mars for 90 days, but has now lasted an astounding 14 years. 

In its lifetime, Opportunity has explored two craters on the red planet, Victoria and Endeavour, as well as found several signs of water. 

It survived a bad dust storm in 2007 and is now being closely watched to see if it can survive a massive storm that has an estimated opacity level of 10.8, a sharp increase from the earlier storm’s 5.5 tau. 

NASA has made several updates to the spacecraft since it landed on Mars, such as its flash memory. 

However, Opportunity’s mission continues, in a phase where mission engineers at JPL are sending commands to as well as listening for signals from the rover.

If engineers hear from the rover, they could attempt a recovery.

Opportunity and its twin rover, Spirit, launched from Cape Canaveral, Florida, in 2003. Spirit landed on Mars in 2004, and its mission ended in 2011. 

HOW OFTEN DO DUST STORMS HAPPEN ON MARS AND WHAT’S THE BEST WAY TO SEE THEM?

Dust storms occur frequently on Mars, but global events that circle the entire planet appear every six to eight Earth years, which equates to three to four years on the red planet. 

MailOnline spoke to Dr Robert Massey, deputy executive director of the Royal Astronomical Society, for his advice on witnessing this extra-terrestrial weather event.

He said: ‘Observing Mars is always challenging, as it’s small, about half the size of the Earth, and at its closest is still around 34 million miles (55 million km) away. 

‘It is easily visible to the eye as a bright red object in the sky, but seeing any detail requires a reasonable telescope and binoculars won’t show much. 

‘Even with that, details are fleeting, and depend on a steady terrestrial atmosphere as otherwise turbulence blurs out the view. 

‘This is why early Martian observers spent a lot of time making many sketches to try to map the planet’s surface.  

‘A good time to look is when Mars is near its opposition, the point when the planet is opposite the sun in the sky and near its minimum distance from the Earth. 

‘Opposition in 2018 is on July 27, and Mars’ closest approach is on 30 July. 

‘As it gets dark in the evening, you should look for a bright red object in the southeastern sky.

‘With a decent telescope, observers can see the polar caps growing and shrinking and the dust storms described above. These can rapidly change from being local features to planetwide events.’

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