It has now been close to five months since we last heard from NASA’s rover Opportunity on Mars. It went into hibernation mode due to an intense global dust storm, and has been silent ever since June 10, 2018. Needless to say, there has been growing concern as to whether the rover would be able to survive the storm; Opportunity has made it through dust storms and other hazards before, but this dust storm was particularly fierce.
Another potential problem related to how long NASA should continue listening for a signal from Opportunity, showing that it was still alive. NASA had previously announced that it would begin a 45-day period of actively trying to communicate with the rover once the tau level dipped below 1.5, starting on September 11. As noted in the NASA update for the same day:
“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,” said John Callas, Opportunity project manager at JPL. “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 the fact that this listening window was first supposed to last only 45 days caused concern among many people who wanted NASA to do everything it could to re-establish communication with Opportunity. Well now there is some good news – although the rover is still silent, NASA issued an update on Oct. 29, 2018 stating that the listening strategy will continue for the foreseeable future. The statement does also say however that if the rover has not been heard from by January, then the situation will be reassessed at that time.
“After a review of the progress of the listening campaign, NASA will continue its current strategy for attempting to make contact with the Opportunity rover for the foreseeable future. Winds could increase in the next few months at Opportunity’s location on Mars, resulting in dust being blown off the rover’s solar panels. The agency will reassess the situation in the January 2019 time frame.”
This is great news, since it means they will continue trying to communicate with Opportunity when, in the next weeks and months, winds could more likely clean off the solar panels, as they’ve done before.
On September 11, it was announced that the dust storm was finally beginning to abate:
“The dust haze produced by the Martian global dust storm of 2018 is one of the most extensive on record, but all indications are it is finally coming to a close,” said MRO Project Scientist Rich Zurek at JPL. “MARCI images of the Opportunity site have shown no active dust storms for some time within 3,000 kilometers [about 1,900 miles] of the rover site.”
Opportunity, and its twin rover Spirit, landed on Mars in early 2004. Both had a hoped-for lifetime of 90 sols (Mars days, just a bit longer than an Earth day), but Spirit lasted until 2010 before it got stuck in a sand dune and was unable to get free. Whether Opportunity is actually still alive now is unknown but hopefully it will wake up again sometime soon.
Meanwhile, NASA’s other current rover, Curiosity, continues to explore Gale crater, the location of a former lake a few billion years ago, barely affected by the dust storm since it is nuclear powered instead of using solar panels like Opportunity does.
The next lander, InSight, is also due to land on Mars later this month. On November 26, InSight will land in Elysium Planitia, where it will study the interior of Mars deep below the surface. To do this, it needs to remain in one spot, unlike previous rovers, and it is also capable of landing during a dust storm, if necessary.
You can follow the updates for Opportunity and the dust storm, which is now abating, here.