Over the course of the last 15 years, NASA’s trusty rover, Opportunity, has been roaming the surface of the Red Planet – Mars - but now it may have been lost – at least temporarily, NASA reports.
A massive dust storm about the size of the North American continent has shrouded Mars, and has covered Opportunity for the last several days.
Not only is much of the planet in the dark, but so too is Earth about Opportunity’s whereabouts and her status. Because the robot’s solar panels have been unable to receive light, its battery status has dropped enough to put Opportunity to sleep, which means she’s no longer transmitting information to Earth.
“It’s gotten so bad she’s not talking to us,” Bill Nelson, chief of the Opportunity mission’s engineering team at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory said.
“It’s a bit scary — we like to hear from our rover.”
Well over a week ago, NASA announced that Opportunity had been covered by the veil of “perpetual night” thanks to the massive dust storm. And although Opportunity has weathered many a storm since it first touched down on the Red Planet’s surface in 2004, this one is particularly bad.
Now, everyone is waiting with bated breath to see whether or not the rover will be able to re-power once the storm finally calms.
“If they go completely dead, you’re usually in trouble,” Nelson noted.
But Opportunity has beat the odds before.
As Nelson said: “I’m fairly optimistic at this point. I’m hopeful that we may be able to recover.”
That said, the dust storm that Opportunity is facing now is exactly what scientists initially thought would kill the rover. After all, with Martian dust and grime accumulation, it seemed like only a matter of time before the solar panels were obscured enough to make it impossible for Opportunity to carry on.
However, Nelson explained: “We’ve been lucky that winds or dust devils have come and blown off the arrays. The wind blows off the bulk of the dust.”
He added: “We’ve been fairly fortunate in missing the regional and global dust storms.” The same could not be said for Opportunity’s sister, Spirit, who met her end in 2010.
That rover ended up getting stuck in a part of Mars that didn’t receive as much sunlight, and before engineers were able to move Spirit to a more advantageous location, time ran out. Apparently, Spirit “froze to death.”
But NASA engineers are hoping Opportunity can live up to her name and battle out this latest obstacle.