Against all odds, NASA’s Opportunity rover has continued to transmit information back to Earth through a powerful dust storm.
The rover has been on Mars for over a decade, collecting data on the planet since 2004. While mostly calm, the Red Planet has seen a few severe dust storms in that time. In 2007, when a dust storm covered most of the planet, the rover had to be drawn back to minimal operations for two weeks.
That was the general plan for this go around as well. The current dust storm is larger than the size of the North American continent and had the potential to seriously damage Opportunity. Opportunity’s engineers must balance low levels of charge in the rover’s battery with sub-freezing temperatures.
A plan was in place to deal with the storm. But then, something unexpected happened: Opportunity continued to send transmissions.
The transmission on Sunday morning to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab in California was a “positive sign despite the worsening dust storm,” NASA said in an updated press statement.
It’s unexpected because although this new storm is smaller than the 2007 storm, it’s much more intense. Storms on Mars, where this is no life to be threatened or property to be damaged, are described through opacity levels, the higher the worse they are. The previous storm had an opacity level, or tau, of 5.5. The current storm is registered at 10.8 tau.
Opportunity is telling engineers that it’s currently 20 degrees F below freezing. In a storm, there’s a focus on protecting Opportunity’s batteries from the cold—it’s widely suspected that cold from a storm is what finally knocked the old rover Spirit out of commission.
However, these dust storms provide a level of protection as well as danger. While the all-encompassing dust might blot out the sun, that swirling dust also absorbs heat. Scientists suspect that the dust has raised the ambient temperature around Opportunity, keeping its battery fully functional.
Opportunity has a history of being heartier than its builders give it credit for. The rover was only supposed to study Mars for 90 days, initially. That’s turned into 15 years. In 2011, Popular Mechanics gave Opportunity a lifetime achievement award “for overcoming great challenges in their dogged pursuit of new discoveries on the Red Planet.” It’s a description that was as accurate than as it is today.
Previously Published by: Popular Mechanics USA