Scientists believe a massive dust storm that has engulfed Mars since early June may finally be showing signs of dissipating, but among those tasked with recovery operations for the Opportunity Rover, some fear that it may already be too late.
Opportunity left Earth on July 7, 2003, and after nearly seven months, arrived on the Martian surface on January 25, 2004. At that moment, the clock began ticking — the 400-pound rover had been built to withstand just 90 Martian days (approximately 92.5 days here on Earth), and there was a lot of science to be done. Soon, however, that guaranteed lifespan elapsed and the rover continued to function. Not long after, it had doubled that time span with no signs of slowing to down — and to date, (assuming the Rover recovers) it has continued to function on Mars for 5,320 days in all, or 5,227.5 days past its expiration date. While it’s price tag at around $400 million may sound steep, it seems NASA did get its money’s worth out of the little rover, but then, they may not be through yet.
Opportunity hasn’t had any communications with its handlers back at NASA since June 10, with the powerful dust storm not only cutting it off from communications but also the sunlight it needs to recharge its batteries. The team at NASA are hopeful that, as the sandstorm dissipates in the coming weeks, the solar panels will once again catch the glean of the distant sun and breath new life into the 14-year-old machine, though they tend to pepper their optimism with a fair dose of uncertainty. The Opportunity rover has already lived nearly 60 times longer than it was designed for, and it’s entirely possible that its past two months in darkness may have depleted its aging battery beyond revival. Further concerns include the possibility that the planet’s bitter cold may have helped to do it in, and even that the powerful sandstorm itself could have caused damage to its systems. However, despite the odds seemingly stacked against Opportunity, NASA contends that its story may not end here.
In an update about NASA’s effort to recover the Opportunity rover, NASA officials said:
They’ve performed several studies on the state of its batteries before the storm, and temperatures at its location. Because the batteries were in relatively good health before the storm, there’s not likely to be too much degradation. And because dust storms tend to warm the environment — and the 2018 storm happened as Opportunity’s location on Mars entered summer — the rover should have stayed warm enough to survive.
Assuming the storm winds down in the coming weeks, NASA’s team will use two methods to determine if Opportunity is operational. The first will be direct communications via the Deep Space Network, which consists of three massive radio antenna facilities located at specific locations around the globe, which will allow NASA the chance to issue commands and await responses. The second, passive effort will include just keeping radio antennas pointed at Mars during daylight hours, hoping to hear Opportunity’s unique digital “voice” come across.
Of course, if Opportunity does wake up and respond, that doesn’t mean it will be out of the woods yet. It may take weeks for it to regain enough power to even assess if anything else has gone wrong. Once it’s able, the team will have to assess the remaining lifespan of the batteries (which may charge enough to communicate but little else) as well as if there was any damage caused by the dust storm. By all accounts, reviving the Opportunity rover may be a long shot, but Opportunity was built with long shots in mind.