In the Hollywood movie The Martian, starring Matt Damon, a massive dust storm causes havoc for a manned mission to the Red Planet, forcing early human visitors to abandon the surface. The storm is covering an area of 14 million square miles, or a quarter of the Red Planet, NASA said today in a mission update. Because of the storm, those panels aren't receiving enough sunlight to fully charge up the rover, meaning that it's now trying to save what little power it does have before getting in touch with Earth again. NASA ceased Opportunity's science operations on June 4 as engineers prepared to secure the craft against the storm, Callas said. Luckily, NASA engineers received a transmission from the rover on Sunday, which was a positive indication since it proved that the rover still has enough battery charge to communicate with controllers at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. "We're concerned but we're hopeful that the storm will clear and the rover will begin to communicate to us".
An attempt to contact Opportunity Tuesday was not successful. The storm has been growing since the end of May with unprecedented speed.
Scientists aren't almost as concerned about the newer, nuclear-powered Curiosity rover on the other side of Mars, which is already seeing darkening skies.
Callas said the dust storm had essentially turned day into night for Opportunity as the opacity of the atmosphere, a measure of how effectively the dust is blocking out sunlight, climbed to record levels. Richard Zurek of the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter team described it as just days away from engulfing the entire planet, something that's only been seen a dozen times, and not since 2007.
In the meantime, Opportunity's science operations remain suspended and the Opportunity team has requested additional communications coverage from NASA's Deep Space Network - the global system of antennas that communicates with all of the agency's deep space missions.
By Wednesday, June 6th, Opportunity's power levels had dropped significantly and the rover was required to shift to minimal operations.
It could also pose a threat to the Curiosity rover, which is monitoring the storm from the periphery. Callas said that, on June 2, Opportunity measured an optical depth of 0.6, which is normal for this time of year, and the rover was generating 645 watt-hours.
This time, the rover's energy level is believed to be much lower. On the plus side, Martian summertime is approaching and that should keep temperatures up at night and prevent the batteries and other parts from freezing. Besides electrical heaters, Opportunity is equipped with eight tiny plutonium-powered heaters.
Scientists are eager to learn as much as they can about the dust storm to hone their weather forecasting skills.
A dust storm is raging on Mars. The Martian atmosphere is so thin that while the wind can lift dust off the surface, it doesn't topple a spacecraft.
There is a risk that Opportunity will get too cold as it struggles to power its internal heaters, which protect its batteries from Mars' extreme cold.