Opportunity Rover Marks 15 Years on Mars as NASA Implements New Contact Strategy after Dust Storm Silence

This pre-dust storm panoramic mosaic view was one
of the last ones taken by NASA’s Opportunity rover and shows the spectacular
view from her approximate current position as of June 2018 after traveling
halfway down the fluid carved slope of Perseverance Valley – while peering 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

Ken Kremer  SpaceUpClose.com &
RocketSTEM
–25 January 2019


CAPE CANAVERAL,
FL – NASA’s world famous Opportunity Rover today marks 15 Years since a breathtaking
touchdown on Mars
on Jan. 24, 2004 while conducting a resoundingly successful scientific foray on the alien
Red Planets surface on a stunning overland trek encompassing more than 28
miles (45 kilometers) across a region called Meridiani Planum. 



Yet today, her
fate is unknown – having been silenced by a historic global dust storm that has cut off
all communications for over seven months with the celebrated but aged solar
powered rover.



Thus NASA announced
today that engineers are implementing a new strategy in hopes of making renewed
contact.



“The team is continuing to listen for the rover
over a broad range of times, frequencies and polarizations using the Deep Space
Network (DSN) Radio Science Receiver,” said NASA.



To date more than 600 recovery commands have
been sent!
A revised communications
strategy is urgently needed because the rover is heading into southern hemisphere winter
on Mars with decreased solar power generation possibilities and exiting the summertime
season that simultaneously helped cause the dust storm while offering the best hope
for generating solar power.
This set of images from NASA’s Mars
Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) 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/MSSS

The six wheeled robot
has operated far beyond the wildest expectations of the science and engineering
team on a mission only warrantied to last a mere 90 sols, or 3 months since
sending her
first
signal back to Earth from the surface on Jan. 24 at 9:05 p.m. PST (Jan. 25,
2004, at 12:05 a.m. EST).



Opportunity remains
“still silent” as of today, sadly. 



The
last communication from Opportunity with Earth was received June 10, 2018
(Sol
5111).



“Fifteen years on the surface of Mars is
testament not only to a magnificent machine of exploration but the dedicated
and talented team behind it that has allowed us to expand our discovery space
of the Red Planet,” said John Callas, project manager for Opportunity at
NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, in a Jan. 24 statement. 



“However, this anniversary cannot help
but be a little bittersweet as at present we don’t know the rover’s status. We
are doing everything in our power to communicate with Opportunity, but as time
goes on, the probability of a successful contact with the rover continues to
diminish.”

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

When the massive planet-encircling dust storm hit Opportunity had
been descending down and exploring Perseverance
Valley located
along the eroded western rim of the gigantic 22-km diameter (14
mi) impact crater named Endeavour. 

NASA’s Opportunity rover acquired
this Martian panoramic view from a promontory that overlooks Perseverance
Valley below – scanning from north to south. It is centered on due East and
into the interior of Endeavour crater. Perseverance Valley descends from the
right and terminates down near the crater floor in the center of the panorama.
The far rim of Endeavour crater is seen in the distance, beyond the dark floor.
Rover deck and wheel tracks at right. This navcam camera photo mosaic was
assembled from raw images taken on Sol 4730 (14 May 2017) and colorized.
Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo

The global
Martian dust storm that gradually encircled the Red Planet started in late May
whipping up dust that blocked Opportunity’s solar arrays from generating power
and charging the life-giving batteries – thereby cutting off all communications
with Earth from the essentially dead robot.



Meanwhile the dust finally began to subside in
September when NASA began an active listening campaign initially scheduled to
last 45 days and known as ‘sweep and beep’. 
NASA then extended the sweep and beep campaign while giving “top
priority’ to ensuring a successful touchdown for NASA new “InSight” over the
Thanksgiving 2018 holiday.

Historic 1st descent down Martian
gully. Panoramic view looking down Perseverance Valley after entry at top was
acquired by NASA’s Opportunity rover scanning from north to south. It shows
numerous wheel tracks at left, center and right as rover conducted walkabout
tour prior to starting historic first decent down a Martian gully – possibly
carved by water – and looks into the interior of Endeavour crater. Perseverance
Valley terminates down near the crater floor in the center of the panorama. The
far rim of Endeavour crater is seen in the distance, beyond the dark floor.
Rover mast shadow at center and deck at left. This navcam camera photo mosaic
was assembled by Ken Kremer and Marco Di Lorenzo from raw images taken on Sol
4780 (5 July 2017) and colorized. Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/Ken
Kremer/kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo
NASA keep listening for signals because a
potentially favorable “w
indy
period on Mars — known to Opportunity’s team as “dust-clearing
season” — occurs in the November-to-January time frame and has helped
clean the rover’s panels in the past.”

Furthermore Opportunity’s current health is
unknown as is the amount of accumulated dust on the solar panels. 

The team has been listening and send signals regularly
and multiple times per day – a  process
known as ‘sweep and beep’ – hoping the six wheeled robot will wake up. 
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
The team lost contact
with Opportunity after “a planet-wide dust storm blanketed the solar-powered rover’s location on the
western rim of Perseverance Valley, eventually blocking out so much sunlight
that the rover could no longer charge its batteries. Although the storm
eventually abated and the skies over Perseverance cleared, the rover has not
communicated with Earth since then. However, Opportunity’s mission continues,
in a phase where mission engineers at JPL are sending commands to as well as
listening for signals from the rover. If engineers hear from the rover, they
could attempt a recovery,” according to NASA officials.

But now the weather situation
is changing on Mars and becoming potentially dire as wintertime encroaches on southern
hemisphere of the Red Planet where Opportunity is located. 

That means less sun
and lower temperatures -both of which could kill off any chance for reviving Opportunity. 

“Time is of the essence for the Opportunity
team,” the team said in a new statement released Jan. 25. 

“The “dust-clearing season” – the
time of year on Mars when increased winds could clear the rover’s solar panels
of dust that might be preventing it from charging its batteries – is drawing to
a close. Meanwhile, Mars is heading into southern winter, which brings with it
extremely low temperatures that are likely to cause irreparable harm to an
unpowered rover’s batteries, internal wiring and/or computer systems.” 

Thus the question
is can she rise from the dead like Lazarus and ‘phone home’ in the new few
weeks? Or is she permanently silenced?

No one knows.

“Engineers at NASA’s
Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, have begun transmitting a
new set of commands to the Opportunity rover in an attempt to compel the 15-year-old Martian explorer to contact Earth. The new
commands, which will be beamed to the rover during the next several weeks,
address low-likelihood events that could have occurred aboard Opportunity,
preventing it from transmitting.” 

Thus the team will
continue active efforts to contact Opportunity for the foreseeable future,
until such time as they need or seek further guidance from NASA and JPL management.

Keep your fingers crossed!

As of Jan 24, 2019 long
lived Opportunity has survived or experienced over 5300 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



Dr. Kremer is a research scientist and journalist based in the
KSC area.

………….


Ken’s photos are for sale and he is available for lectures and outreach events



Ken’s
upcoming talks:



Apr 3:  “Exploring
Mars; The Search for Life & A Journey in 3-D.”  7 PM, Lawton
C Johnson
Middle School, Summit, NJ. Open
to the public. Details upcoming. Latest results from Mars & Ultima Thule


15 Year Traverse Map for NASA’s Opportunity
rover from 2004 to 2019. This map shows the entire 45-kilometer (28 mi) path
the rover has driven on the Red Planet during over 15 Earth years (7.8 Mars
years) and more than a marathon runners distance for over 5300 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/Space
UpClose posing with full scale model of NASA’s Opportunity Mars Exploration
Rover at Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex, Florida


Ken Kremer

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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