CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP) – NASA's seemingly unstoppable Mars rover Opportunity has been knocked out by a giant dust storm that's enveloping the red planet and erasing the sun.
Officials said on Wednesday they are hopeful Rover will survive the storm, which already covers a quarter of Mars and is expected to surround the planet in a few days. However, it could take weeks or even months for the sky to clear enough for sunlight to reach the Martian surface and recharge Opportunity's batteries through its solar panels.
For now, the oldest working rover on Mars is caught in the middle of the storm fury, in the dark twenty-four hours.
"No way are we out of danger here," said John Callas, the Opportunity project manager at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. "This storm is threatening, and we do not know how long it will last, and we do not know what the environment will be like once it is clarified."
Flight controllers tried Tuesday night to contact Opportunity, but the rover did not respond. The storm has been growing since late May with unprecedented speed.
NASA launched twin rovers Opportunity and Spirit in 2003 to study rocks and Martian soil. They landed in 2004. Spirit did not work for several years. The opportunity, however, has continued to explore well beyond its intended mission life.
Scientists are not so concerned about Curiosity's new nuclear-powered robot on the other side of Mars, which is already seeing darkened skies.
Dust storms arise from time to time on Mars, sending dust tens of miles (kilometers) into the atmosphere and turning day into night. The spacecraft that orbit around Mars are too tall to be affected.
There is no possibility that Opportunity is buried or that a wheel is trapped in the dust. Even in the worst storms, only one layer of fine dust remains. The managers said that the main concern is that the dust could temporarily cover their optical instruments.
Rover batteries are probably so low that only one watch is still running, to wake the spacecraft for periodic power level checks, officials said. If the clock is also disconnected, then the phone will not know what time it is when it turns on again and could send signals back at any time.
This is not Opportunity's first big dust brush.
2007, a massive dust storm kept Opportunity quiet for a few days. He jumped back into action after waking up from his deep self-protective sleep.
This time, it is believed that the energy level of the rover is much lower. On the positive side, the Martian summer is approaching and that should keep the high temperatures at night and prevent the batteries and other parts from freezing. In addition to electric heaters, Opportunity is equipped with eight small heaters powered by plutonium.
Scientists are eager to learn as much as they can about the dust storm to hone their weather forecasting skills. Astronauts living on Mars, for example, would not want to be trapped outside in a fierce dust storm, where winds can reach 70 mph (113 kilometers per hour), almost like the force of hurricanes. The Martian atmosphere is so thin that, although the wind can lift dust from the surface, it does not knock down a spaceship.
The opportunity was in remarkably good health upon entering the storm, said Callas, with only one arthritic joint in his robot arm.
"Please note, we are talking about a rover that has been working on Mars, holding there for 15 years and designed only for 90 days," said Jim Watzin, director of NASA's Mars Exploration Program. "There's simply nothing better than that."