After a multi-month-long global dust storm on our favorite red planet, our fears might be true; it appears that the Opportunity rover might actually be dead. This global dust storm started up in June, and on June 10 NASA lost communication with the 15-year-old Opportunity.
While it may sound ominous, it isn’t totally unexpected since this massive dust storm has, essentially, rendered Opportunity’s solar panels moot. Those solar panels charge up Opportunity’s batteries, but the dust in the atmosphere is so thick that the sun’s light cannot reach Opportunity’s solar panels.
Why Is Opportunity At Risk?
Since Opportunity cannot charge its batteries using the solar panels, the rover has put itself into hibernation mode. So, not only are the panels not getting a charge, but the dust is actually settling onto the solar panels. With the dust coating the solar panels, even if the batteries come back, the batteries will not be able to hold a charge and the rover itself will have a problem storing and using electrical energy. So, even if (and it is a massive if) the rover comes back on after this massive dust storm dissipates, Opportunity will be pretty well crippled electrically.
Another problem Opportunity is currently facing is the intense cold on Mars. Temperatures can drop to -100 degrees Fahrenheit which can actually crack the electronic circuits in the rover. Now, Opportunity does have little pockets of plutonium-238 to keep its circuitry warm and to protect it from the intense cold. However, the plutonium-238 is decaying and does not last forever, so after all these years it isn’t warm enough to keep the circuitry warm enough. So, this means that the batteries need to be working and charged to keep the circuitry warm… and you see the issue there.
There is a ray of hope, however. The storm could be breaking soon and, theoretically, Martian dust devils could knock off some of the dust that is covering up the solar panels on the rover. If the storm weakens and dissipates, and a dust devil (which are numerous and frequent on Mars) happens, then the solar panels could get enough sunlight to charge up its batteries and can finally make contact with NASA. NASA officials also said that before Opportunity lost contact on June 10th that the batteries were in good condition and that it was unlikely that the batteries would degrade too much.
While there is that little ray of hope on the horizon, NASA is being realistic on what happens if Opportunity comes back online. They have stated before that if Opportunity contacts them again it probably will not be the same as it was before the dust storm. However, Opportunity has had quite the long life serving NASA and has lived well past its expiration date, so it has been a matter of time until something happened that rendered Opportunity dead (just like its twin, the Mars rover Spirit).
The video above is from a conference NASA held three days after they lost contact with Opportunity on June 10th. Now, the video itself is a little over an hour and is at times pretty boring, but, they talk about the rover and the incredible dust storm. I personally listened to the entire video and thoroughly enjoyed it, the speakers did a good job explaining what was happening to Opportunity and the problems that could pop up with the rover. Now, keep in mind that this video was recorded two months so we do have more information, for instance, the length of time that this dust storm has lasted.
This particular dust storm is actually the biggest storm that “we” have ever seen, and when I refer to it as planet-wide I’m not exaggerating. Images of the red planet have shown before and after pictures that are insane. In the video below, you will be able to see Mars in May very clearly and can make out landmarks and canyons, you get the point. Fast forward to July, and it is a totally different picture. The dust completely covers the entire planet and you cannot make out anything on Mars. It is almost as if someone took a nail file and just filed the planet down to remove all the blemishes and divets. In the conference video at one point NASA describes the planet as being pitch black at times, which is insane to think about.
The Martian Dust Storm
Now, if you’re anything like me you probably love the book and the movie “The Martian”, so just how accurate is that movie’s depiction of Martian dust storms? Well, it really isn’t that realistic. Yes, there are super intense Martian dust storms, obviously, since that’s the main focus of this article. However, “The Martian” does not really depict it that well. In the movie, we see the crew forced to abandon their mission on Mars due to a massive dust storm and they have to evacuate Mars. Once they step outside their HAB they face extremely powerful winds and severe darkness and Mark Watney (Matt Damon’s character) is picked up by the winds and thrown away from the group. He is lost, assumed dead, and the crew is forced to leave him behind.
Now, in the book, the author explains at the end that this portion was total BS, saying he needed a reason for a crew member to be left behind. In reality, the atmospheric pressure on Mars is 1% of that on Earth, meaning the wind on Mars won’t do much of anything. So 100 to 200 MPH winds really would not be a big deal, it would be almost like getting hit with a light pillow thrown by an infant. Otherwise, the storm is pretty accurate in the movie (including the total darkness part, which is what Opportunity and Curiosity are experiencing).
What About Curiosity?
You might be curious about our absolute favorite rover, Curiosity, and whether or not it is in danger. Luckily, Curiosity is chugging right along doing its own thing reporting on the dust storm and communicating with NASA. How is that possible while Opportunity is dead? Curiosity is powered by a nuclear battery and does not rely on solar panels like its predecessor, so it isn’t at all affected by the dust storm.