Enormous dust storm on red planet forcefully ceases activities of NASA’s Opportunity

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It was initially designed for just a 90-day mission.

The Opportunity rover of NASA has been sidelined by a huge dust tempest on Mars, halting the science work of the robot as it hangs around the still-growing storm. "In a matter of days, the storm had ballooned", explained NASA's spokespersons in an official statement. Nighttime on Mars is extremely cold, but using Opportunity's heaters can drain the batteries.

NASA's Opportunity has been exploring Mars since 2004, but it functions on solar power. Till Friday, the storm has covered more than 7 million square miles of Mars.

"We first started observing little bursts of methane, and it really wasn't until this paper, which incorporates data from the last five-and-a-half years from the rover, that we were able to show that those methane bursts occur on a seasonal basis and therefore really are intrinsic, they're from Mars itself", Siebach says. It increased the atmospheric opacity in the region, creating a smog-like situation where most of the sunlight gets blocked out.

The space agency says the current storm has an opacity level of 10.8, and that 2007's severe dust storm had a 5.5.

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NASA noticed a significant drop in the rover's power levels on June 6, and has entered crisis mode. That led to two weeks of minimal operations, including several days with no contact from the rover to save power. It's not unlike running a vehicle in the winter so that the cold doesn't sap its battery charge. However, they can develop seemingly overnight and last weeks, even months. And it's seen dust storms bigger than the one it's experiencing now.

Regardless of the outcome, it is extremely important to remember that Opportunity is now in its 14th Earth year of operation of what was supposed to be a 90-day mission when the rover landed on the Meridiani Planum on 25 January 2004. During summer in the south, the Sun warms dust particles, causing them to rise up higher into the sky.

The main concern NASA has with this kind of tempest is that the rover's batteries will get too cold and it won't be able to function once the dust storm ends.

"The question of whether life might have originated or existed on Mars is a lot more opportune now that we know that organic molecules were present on its surface at that time". The map was produced by the Mars Color Imager (MARCI) camera on NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter spacecraft. "That wind kicks up yet more dust, creating a feedback loop that NASA scientists still seek to understand". The small blue dot in the below image of the storm (click to enlarge) indicates Opportunity's location in Perseverance Valley.

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