Panoramic Camera: image from Opportunity on Sol 5111.
Credit: NASA/JPL

NASA will host a media teleconference today at 10:30 a.m. PDT (1:30 p.m. EDT) Wednesday, June 13, to discuss the health of NASA’s Opportunity rover.

A massive Martian dust storm is affecting operations of the solar powered robot. The storm is one of the most intense ever observed on the Red Planet.

As of June 10, the dust storm covered more than 15.8 million square miles (41 million square kilometers) — about the area of North America and Russia combined.

It has blocked out so much sunlight, it has effectively turned day into night for Opportunity which is located near the center of the storm, inside Mars’ Perseverance Valley on the west rim of Endeavour Crater.

Low-power response

In response, on Monday, June 4, 2018 and Tuesday, June 5, 2018 (Sols 5106 and 5107), two low-power plans were developed for Opportunity. Since then the atmosphere over the rover has continued to deteriorate. On Sol 5105 (June 3, 2018; the last sol of the weekend plan), Opportunity’s solar arrays generated 468 watt-hours of energy with an atmospheric opacity (tau) of around 1.0.

On Sol 5106 (June 4, 2018), energy was down to 345 watt-hours with a tau of 2.1. Additionally, on Sol 5107 (June 6, 2018), the energy dropped further to 133 watt-hours. We were unable to get a measurement of tau on Sol 5107 (June 6, 2018), but it is estimated to be above 3.0.

Opportunity has not seen this level of atmospheric opacity in over a decade.

Wake-up calls

In Sol 5108 (June 7, 2018) the rover team crafted a minimum-power two-sol plan, where the rover wakes on the first sol only to receive the morning commands then sleeps to the next sol with a brief wake-up in the morning. Subsequently, naps until the afternoon for a quick atmospheric measurement with the Panoramic Camera (Pancam) then a brief communication session with MRO and back to sleep.

The rover team will likely continue this low-power strategy for Opportunity until conditions improve.

Far from dead

Opportunity landed in Meridiani Planum on January 24, 2004 at 9:05 pm Pacific Time.

Rumors of Opportunity’s death are very premature, explains James W. Rice, Jr., Geology Team Leader on the Mars Exploration Rover Project. “We are far from dead at this moment! It’s a grim situation right now, no doubt about it, and we still have a long way to go in this our latest challenge on the Red Planet. However, we have an impressive record of overcoming challenges in the past 14.5 years and our team is the best on both worlds!”


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