There’s a massive dust storm enveloping certain parts of Mars right now, and it just so happens that NASA’s Opportunity rover is stuck right in the middle of it.
Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS
Opportunity is a solar-powered rover and therefore doesn’t play nicely with dust storms. These storms kick massive clouds of dust into the atmosphere that block vital solar rays from reaching the vehicle’s onboard solar panels.
That said, Opportunity has temporarily ceased scientific operations until the dust storm blows over. It’s currently sitting tight in standby mode, sipping off the battery power reserves it accumulated right before the dust storm struck.
This wouldn't be the first dust storm that Opportunity has endured; a larger one forced NASA to shut the rover down for two weeks in 2007. That aside, this week’s dust storm has allegedly kicked up a thicker dust cloud than the 2007 storm, so it could take a bit longer for Opportunity to become fully operational again.
In the meantime, the Mastcam mounted on NASA’s Curiosity rover is helping the space agency track the dust storm from a distance.
"To measure dust in the atmosphere, we'll first point Mastcam towards the sun and take a tau measurement, which lets us determine the optical depth vertically," mission team member Rachel Kronyak said in a public statement.
"Then we'll take a Mastcam image of the crater rim to determine line-of-sight extinction, which is directly related to the amount of dust present. ENV will also take a few movies with Navcam to assess clouds, wind direction, and to look for dust devils."
NASA warns of the possibility that the dust storm could soon intrude on Curiosity’s territory, but unlike Opportunity, Curiosity operates on nuclear-power and can manage without sunlight.
The space agency will continue monitoring the situation until the dust storm passes, ensuring that Opportunity stays warm enough amid the blocked sunlight. Onboard heating systems will prevent the rover’s delicate electronics from freezing over to avoid damage to vital components.