The saga of the Mars dust storm that may have killed NASA’s Opportunity rover may still come with a twist ending. The rover, which has been sitting silently ever since the planet-swallowing dust storm blocked out its only source of power, still has a opportunity to wake back up. NASA is holding its collective breath as it waits and wonders whether the robot made it through.
Opportunity entered a low-power default state — like an automatic hibernation mode of sorts — when the skies above it were too dim to allow its solar panels to gather energy and recharge its batteries. Engineers were hopeful that when the dust began to settle, the rover would spring back to life, but that just hasn’t happened yet. Still, all is not lost.
“The Sun is breaking through the haze over Perseverance Valley, and soon there will be enough sunlight present that Opportunity should be able to recharge its batteries,” John Callas of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said in a statement. “When the tau level [a measure of the amount of particulate matter in the Martian sky] dips below 1.5, we will begin a period of actively attempting to communicate with the rover by sending it commands via the antennas of NASA’s Deep Space Network. Assuming that we hear back from Opportunity, we will begin the process of discerning its status and bringing it back online.”
But this optimism comes with a big “if.” Opportunity has now been sitting in limbo for a long, long time, and even if the rover managed to snap out of its stupor there’s no guarantee that it can continue on in the same manner that it did before the storm engulfed it. If the robot wakes back up it might take a long time for it to recover from its long nap, and if Opportunity’s batteries have been damaged by sitting empty in the frigid environment for too long, it might be permanently hampered.
The clock is now officially ticking on the entire Opportunity mission. As NASA explains, they’ll wait a full 45 days for Opportunity to come back to life and call home, but if it they hear only silence they will be forced to declare the rover dead, at least for the time being.
“At that point our active phase of reaching out to Opportunity will be at an end,” Callas notes. “However, in the unlikely chance that there is a large amount of dust sitting on the solar arrays that is blocking the Sun’s energy, we will continue passive listening efforts for several months.”