Escalating Dust Storm Encircles Mars, NASA’s Opportunity Rover Remains Silent Fate Unknown

Two 2001 images from the Mars Orbiter Camera on NASA’s Mars
Global Surveyor orbiter show a dramatic change in the planet’s appearance when
haze raised by dust-storm activity in the south became globally distributed.
The images were taken about a month apart. Credit:  NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS




Ken Kremer     SpaceUpClose.com     20 June 2018

CAPE CANAVERAL,
FL –  The escalating dust storm afflicting
the Red Planet that began in late May has now grown to a “planet-encircling” event NASA announced today, as the agency’s
long-lived
Opportunity rover remains silent, starved of power from its life
giving solar arrays – fate unknown!



And there are no
signs that the storm will clear anytime soon as it continues to grow in Martian magnitude. 



“As of Tuesday
morning, June 19, the Martian dust storm has grown in size and is now
officially a “planet-encircling” (or “global”) dust event,”
according to Bruce Cantor of Malin Space Science Systems, San Diego, who is
deputy principal investigator of the Mars Color Imager camera on board NASA’s
Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, in a NASA statement released June 20. 



MRO and NASA’s fleet
of three orbiters are monitoring the dust storm daily with a suite of science
instruments streaming data back to researchers here on Earth for analysis. 



“It’s anyone’s guess
how it will further develop, but it shows no sign of clearing,” NASA said in a
statement.



The intensifying
massive global Martian dust storm blotting out virtually all life-giving sunlight
has effectively turned day into night on frigid Mars, imperiling Opportunity’s survival
and forcing her to shut down all subsystems and go into sleep mode in a bid to
hang on for dear life – at a spot coincidentally called ‘Perseverance Valley.’



“There still was no signal received from NASA’s
Opportunity rover, despite efforts to listen in case it’s coming out of sleep
during its fault window — the period of time when it attempts to communicate.”



The last signal – and sign of life – from Opportunity was received on
June 10.  The team listens regularly
every day, hoping the six wheeled robot will wake up. But its unlikely until the dust-choked skies
clear up sufficiently to power up the sleeping systems.



“A recent analysis of
the rover’s long-term survivability in Mars’ extreme cold suggests
Opportunity’s electronics and batteries can stay warm enough to function.
Regardless, the project doesn’t expect to hear back from Opportunity until the
skies begin to clear over the rover. That doesn’t stop them from listening for
the rover every day.



To get a birds-eye view of exactly
what Opportunity’ surroundings look like, be sure to check out our exclusive
rover mosaics showing her current view from
Perseverance Valley and our route
map – created by the imaging team of Ken Kremer and Marco Di Lorenzo. 


This pre-dust storm panaromic mosaic view was
taken by NASA’s Opportunity rover showing the spectacular view from her
approximate current position in June 2018 after traveling halfway down the
fluid carved slope of Perseverance Valley – while peeing into the interior of
vast Endeavour Crater.  This navcam camera photo mosaic was assembled by Ken
Kremer and Marco Di Lorenzo from raw images taken on Sol 5074  (3 May 2018) and colorized. Credit:
NASA/JPL/Cornell/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo

Fortunately, NASA’s
other operating Mars rover, the nuclear powered Curiosity Mars Science
Laboratory (MSL) vehicle located
on the other side of the planet
remains unaffected – although the skies over her Gale
Crater landing site have darkened considerably.



Thus Curiosity has continued her research activities
unabated, including making measurements confirming the increasing dust levels,
while Opportunity remains in deep sleep unable to make any measurements or
communications of any kind.  



Curiosity found that the atmospheric dust as
measured by atmospheric opacity (tau) more than doubled this past weekend
to 8 tau.   



The last measurement from Opportunity showed that atmospheric opacity had rocketed  to a record high of 10.5 on June 10, causing
energy production to plummet.



Whereas on May 30
the tau level was only 0.6.



“The atmospheric haze blocking sunlight, called
“tau,” is now above 8.0 at Gale Crater — the highest tau the mission
has ever recorded. Tau was last measured near 11 over Opportunity, thick enough
that accurate measurements are no longer possible for Mars’ oldest active rover,”
NASA officials report.



In today’s new dust
storm status update NASA said the 2018 dust storm is “comparable in scale to a similar storm observed by
Viking I in 1977, but not as big as the 2007 storm that Opportunity previously
weathered. But it’s also different than the massive storms observed by Mariner
9 (1971-1972) and Mars Global Surveyor (2001). Those storms totally obscured
the planet’s surface, save for the peaks of Mars’ tallest volcanoes. The
current dust storm is more diffuse and patchy; it’s anyone’s guess how it will
further develop, but it shows no sign of clearing.”





This graphic shows how
the energy available to NASA’s Opportunity rover on Mars (in watt-hours)
depends on how clear or opaque the atmosphere is (measured in a value called
tau). When the tau value (blue) is high, the rover’s power levels (yellow)
drop.  Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/New Mexico Museum of
Natural History

The long lived robot was launched
in 2003, landed in 2004 and has been making breakthrough science and
exploration discoveries ever since during its utterly remarkable 14.5-year-long
overland trek across
the 4th planet from the sun.
By June 10 the dust storm grew so enormously
that it covered more than 15.8 million square miles (41 million square
kilometers) – about the area of North America and Russia combined.   
It blocked out so much sunlight
that it effectively turned day into night for Opportunity, which is located
near the center of the storm, inside Mars’ Perseverance Valley.
Because the solar
powered Opportunity rover charges her batteries, instruments and heaters via
sunlight impinging on her solar arrays, No sunlight means no production of electrical power to run her systems and subsystems. 


“A severe dust storm on Mars
threatens Opportunity. We are concerned because there is no signal,”
said John
Callas,
Opportunity project
manager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California, at a hastily
arranged NASA briefing for reporters on June 13.



“I declared a
spacecraft emergency on June 10 when solar energy production was only 22
watt-hours.  Everything was turned off
except the master clock.”



“It’s completely
black on Mars!”



At that time the
current storm was “just 2 or 3 days away from becoming a planet encircling
event,” said Rich Zurek, chief scientist for the Mars
Program Office at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.




Opportunity rover looks south
from the top of Perseverance Valley along the rim of Endeavour Crater on Mars
in this partial self portrait including the rover deck and solar panels.
Perseverance Valley descends from the right and terminates down near the crater
floor. This navcam camera photo mosaic was assembled from raw images taken on
Sol 4736 (20 May 2017) and colorized. Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/Marco Di
Lorenzo/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com




At the last media briefing I asked Zurek and
Calles to comment about how long the storm will continue to intensify ? and how
long can the rover survive in the very low power mode weeks/months?



“In some sense the storm won’t get too much worse.  What is changing is the storm is producing a
dust haze that is spreading over the planet and getting raised higher into the
atmosphere. That can lengthen depending on how long it takes for the storm to
clear,” Zurek told me.






“We aren’t expecting the opacity over Opportunity to get
alot worse – but it doesn’t matter because there is almost no sunlight reaching
the ground anyway. It’s a very dusty sky right now.”



“How long the storm will last? Well we are not certain of
that. That is one of the issues that we are trying to understand.”



“We want to learn what initiates that so-called decay phase
where the dust areas stop being raised into the atmosphere and everything
begins to fall out. The winds are part of that and will eventually die down. And
when that happens – next week or two weeks from now – we don’t know,” Zurek
explained to Space UpClose. 





This
set of images from NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter shows a fierce dust storm
kicking up on Mars in June 2018, with NASA’s Opportunity and Curiosity rovers
on the surface indicated as icons.
  Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSS




“As long as the rover stays warm enough, and our
predictions are that it will, then we can go any number of days,” Callas told
me.



“We are approaching summer and have not even hit the
warmest part of the year yet for the rover at this site.” 



“In terms of the low power mode, well the rover actually
goes into that every day. We have a process we call deep sleep in which once we
are done with our activities for the day, we disconnect the batteries from the
rover and only the mission clock is connected. And so we have been deep
sleeping now for thousands of Sols.”



“And so this is like deep sleeping- except we are doing it
throughout the entire day, not just at night,” Callas replied to Space UpClose.






Opportunity is currently descending down and exploring Perseverance Valley located along the
eroded western rim of the gigantic 22-km diameter (14 mi) impact crater named
Endeavour.





Although Opportunity was only warrantied
for “90 Sols” of operation, it is now enjoying its 15th year of
continuous operations on the frigid alien world. 









“Perseverance Valley” is an
ancient fluid-carved valley “possibly water-cut” that could hold groundbreaking
clues to the potential origin and evolution of life on Mars – if it ever
existed.





As of today, June 20,
2018, long lived Opportunity has survived over 5120 Sols (or Martian days)
roving the harsh environment of the Red Planet.





Opportunity has taken over
228,771 images and traversed over
28.06 miles (45.16 kilometers) – more than a marathon.


Watch for Ken’s continuing onsite coverage of NASA, SpaceX, ULA,
Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Orbital ATK and more space and mission reports direct
from the Kennedy Space Center, Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida and
Wallops Flight Facility, Virginia.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and Planetary science and human
spaceflight news: www.kenkremer.com
–www.spaceupclose.com – twitter @ken_kremer – email: ken at kenkremer.com

14 Year Traverse Map for NASA’s
Opportunity rover from 2004 to 2018. This map shows the entire 45 kilometer (28
mi) path the rover has driven on the Red Planet during over 14.5 Earth years (7.5
Mars years) and more than a marathon runners distance for over 5115 Sols, or
Martian days, since landing inside Eagle Crater on Jan 24, 2004 – to current
location at Perseverance Valley at the western rim of Endeavour Crater. The
rover reached Perseverance Valley in May 2017 and descended about halfway by
June 2018.  Its likely a water carved Martian
gully. Opportunity surpassed Marathon distance on Sol 3968 after reaching 11th
Martian anniversary on Sol 3911. Opportunity discovered clay minerals at
Esperance – indicative of a habitable zone – and searched for more at Marathon
Valley. Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/ASU/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Ken Kremer

Watch for Ken’s continuing onsite coverage of NASA, SpaceX, ULA, Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman and more space and mission reports direct from Kennedy Space Center and Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida and Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia. Stay tuned here for Ken's continuing Earth and Planetary science and human spaceflight news. Dr. Kremer is a research scientist and journalist based in the KSC area, active in outreach and interviewed regularly on TV and radio about space topics. Ken’s photos are for sale and he is available for lectures and outreach events.

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