In a blog post, NASA said that it may never again have contact with the Opportunity rover, after the craft got caught up in a Martian dust storm in the middle of June.
While expressing optimism that the worst of the Opportunity’s rover’s problems may be behind it, as the dust storm starts to “decay,” NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s Andrew Good cautioned that the battery for the $400 million vehicle might have discharged so much power and been inactive for so long, it could be a loss.
“Even if engineers hear back from Opportunity, there’s a real possibility the rover won’t be the same,” Good wrote in an Aug. 16 blog post. “The rover’s batteries could have discharged so much power — and stayed inactive so long — that their capacity is reduced. If those batteries can’t hold as much charge, it could affect the rover’s continued operations.”
Good also cautioned that no one will know how the Opportunity rover is doing “until it speaks,” but added that the team behind it is optimistic, after performing tests on its batteries before the storm hit its location.
“Because the batteries were in relatively good health before the storm, there’s not likely to be too much degradation,” Good wrote. “And because dust storms tend to warm the environment — and the 2018 storm happened as Opportunity’s location on Mars entered summer — the rover should have stayed warm enough to survive.”
Good added that the dust is less of a problem. Previous storms which “plastered dust on the camera lenses,” saw most of the dust eventually shed off. “Any remaining dust can be calibrated out,” he wrote.
The dust storm started on June 10 and eventually covered the entire planet, according to Space.com.
Still, it has been a sore spot for NASA that it has not been able to contact the Opportunity rover since the dust storm.
Assuming NASA is able to get in contact with the rover (it is continuing to listen for signs and pinging it three times a week), Good says we may not know anything for a few weeks, likening its condition to a patient coming out of a coma.
“After the first time engineers hear from Opportunity, there could be a lag of several weeks before a second time,” Good wrote. “It’s like a patient coming out of a coma: It takes time to fully recover. It may take several communication sessions before engineers have enough information to take action.”
Opportunity has three so-called “fault modes” when it experiences a problem: a low-power fault that causes it to go into hibernation until there is more sunlight to let it recharge; clock fault, which might happen if the rover doesn’t know what time it is, causing disruptions in communication and uploss fault, which occurs when the rover hasn’t heard from Earth in a long time, causing it to check its equipment and try alternate ways to communicate with Earth.
The Opportunity rover, which was initially meant to only be on the Red Planet for a 90-day mission, has made several groundbreaking discoveries throughout its now roughly 15-year trip, initially leaving Earth on July 7, 2003.
So far, it has detected signs of water, explored the insides of two craters and completed a marathon — the first vehicle to do so on another planet.
But Opportunity’s journey hasn’t always been a smooth one.
In 2005, the rover lost the use of one of its front wheels and got stuck in a thick pile of sand for about five weeks, according to Space.com. When it finally managed to move, it ran into a sand dune. In 2007, a dust storm hit and reportedly cut the spacecraft’s power to “dangerously low levels.” A month later, it turned back on and began exploring the Victoria Crater.
Despite its obstacles, the Opportunity has always managed to pull through. But this time, researchers aren’t sure what will happen.
In the meantime, scientists are trying to stay positive, creating a Mars-themed Spotify playlist — featuring “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go” by Wham!, “Rocket Man” by Elton John, among others — and an office pool to help pass the time.
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