Opportunity, the Mars Exploration Rover (MER), has been spotted in a satellite image. The photo was taken by NASA ‘s HiRISE camera on-board the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), which is used to monitor the planet and communicate with the rover.
The white box shows a 47 metre-wide area of Mars and Opportunity is in the middle of it.
The rover was recently caught up in a massive dust storm on the red planet. Several of these occurred at the same time blocking out the sun and thus depriving Opportunity of the solar power it needs to operate.
The rover was exploring Mars’ Perseverance Valley when the storm started. It’s been a little over 100 days since Opportunity last spoke to mission command .
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The left image shows Mars as it usually looks, the right demonstrates the dust and haze in the atmosphere
Such events are planned for and NASA was aware of the approaching storm as the solar panels were generating less and less power as it grew in intensity. Opportunity was put into low power mode to conserve energy.
In this mode the rover wakes for its morning update from mission command and then takes a nap. In the afternoon it uses its onboard camera to check the atmosphere and sends an update to the MRO, it then goes back to sleep.
The rover then wakes on the next day – a Martian day, or sol, is 24 hours and 39 minutes – for further updates.
NASA put Opportunity into this low power mode on June 7. However the storm’s intensity increased and that caused Opportunity experience a low power fault and the rover has been silent since.
Because it hasn’t heard from Earth in some time the rover will now be in a mode called "uploss". This means it will try to communicate with home in a variety of different ways. NASA uses the deep space network to listen for signs it’s operating.
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Opportunity has been on Mars now for nearly 15 years and has survived massive storms before
NASA is also sending signals that will make the rover beep if it does happen to wake up. Initially it was doing this three times per week, it has since started transmitting signals multiple times per day.
All of the safety procedures are designed to protect the rover and prevent the onboard batteries from discharging too much. If Opportunity gets too cold then it could permanently disable it and end the mission.
This is because the on-board batteries that are charged by the solar panels need to be kept warm or they may stop functioning properly, which could stop the rover operating correctly.
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However NASA is confident that Opportunity has a chance of surviving this storm. For one thing the rover’s batteries are in generally good health, perhaps surprising for a nearly 15-year-old machine.
Additionally, NASA says that dust storms warm the planet, which should mean the rover isn’t getting too cold.
Although the rover is now in quite a deep sleep and it may not know what time it is (crucial for scheduling wakeups) the backup systems will be waiting for the solar panels to generate enough power to ping earth.
If the rover does signal earth it’s likely to take many weeks to troubleshoot it and restart all its systems.
NASA will continue to send signals to Opportunity until January 2019. If it hasn’t heard back from the rover by then it’s unlikely it will again.