Can NASA's Opportunity rover weather a gigantic dust storm on Mars?


NARRATOR Can Opportunity weather a gigantic dust storm on Mars? Mega storms roar across the red planet every five to six years. Mariner 9 caught one in 1971, as did Viking five years later.

Richard Zurek, Mars Exploration Program Scientist Dust storms on Mars aren't the same as dust storms on Earth. If you're at the rover, for instance, sitting on the surface and you're looking up at the sky, you're not going to be able to see the sun's disk even during the day, because the cloud, the dust haze is thick enough that the sunlight has been either absorbed or scattered.

NARRATOR Opportunity snapped these pictures over several Martian days recently. Darkened skies indicate the amount of dust blocking the sun's energy. There is a possibility that if the haze continues to thicken and the solar power is reduced at the surface that we could lose the Opportunity rover.

There's a certain point where it doesn't have enough energy to maintain all of its systems, and once they shut down, we won't be able to revive them. We're not at that point yet, and we have some margin to that, but we're close enough that we're a little worried about it.

Speaker phone (Mars Mission Area) "If all goes well, the commands should be transmitted to the spacecraft during the 12:38 Odyssey pass."

NARRATOR The rover team at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory sent a command asking Opportunity to skip phoning home for a while to conserve energy.

Richard Zurek Opportunity is hunkered down, and so it's only doing the very essential things that are needed to keep the spacecraft alive.

NARRATOR Mars winds can giveth and taketh away. Mars dust devils gave the rovers new leases on life by blowing the dust off of their solar panels. This wind storm is a different story.

Richard Zurek Dust storms on Mars aren't local the way they are on Earth. These things can take over the whole planet. They can obscure, pole to pole, all the way wrapped around the planet. The Odyssey spacecraft can see both where the dust is in the atmosphere and it can also see the temperature effect. On the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, it gets an almost complete global view of the planet.

NARRATOR Scientists hope this Martian dust storm will hold valuable information. Opportunity's twin Spirit is on the other side of Mars where the dust storm is less severe. The team is still limiting its activity to conserve power. In the meantime, scientists and engineers hope the dust settles soon, before Opportunity's power runs out.

Richard Zurek If things don't get worse, we expect that we'll be in a situation of recovering and being able to go on. But even if we don't, okay, instead of 90 days, we've gotten over 1000 days operation on the surface. So, these things have been just, you know, hugely successful.
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