While curiosity is once again in the limelight with the discovery of organic molecules on Mars, it’s easy to forget that another rover is exploring the Red Planet. Nasa’s Opportunity has been on the Martian surface for 15 years, but is now fighting for survival.
The robot has fallen into the middle of a huge sandstorm at its current location in the Perseverance Valley on the Martian equator, for the time being condemning it to inactivity. The storm, with an area of 18 million square kilometers (about the size of North America) is even larger than that of 2007. At that time, whirling dust had darkened the sky, preventing the batteries from being charged by Opportunity’s solar panels. Only after six weeks, the storm had gradually resolved – and the Rover narrowly avoided a total shutdown.
This time it could get worse. Already now prevail around the rover “dark, lingering night,” report NASA employees . The missions became aware of the storm on June 1st. This Friday, the Nasa satellite Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter noted the first offshoots. Just five days later, Opportunity’s energy stocks fell dramatically, forcing NASA to temporarily suspend all operations and switch to power-saving mode.
Once again, there is a danger that the temporary pause will become permanent: In order to protect the electronics from damage in the energy-saving mode, it must not sink below a temperature of -37 degrees Celsius. When a threatening limit is reached, heating elements should start and warm up the electronic components. However, this costs a lot of power: The batteries would be empty in a short time and Opportunity’s sensitive inner life would die a cold death.
So far, however, the rover is not yet dead: On Sunday, NASA caught a signal from Opportunity that “despite the worsening storm is a positive sign.” “The last data transmission showed that the temperature of the rover is -29 degrees Celsius,” says NASA. The circumstances threatening the life of the robot could at the same time be its salvation: the same swirling dust that darkens the sky also absorbs heat, which can locally increase average temperatures.