NASA Opportunity: Radio Silence From Rover Trapped in Dust Storm

NASA still hasn't heard from a rover caught in a massive planet-encircling dust storm on Mars that started on May 30, a space agency official confirmed to Newsweek.

The Opportunity rover last made contact with the space agency on June 10, more than a week before the storm grew to cover the whole planet. Engineers think it has probably entered a low-power mode to conserve energy.

NASA’s Curiosity rover captures an intensifying dust storm that has now engulfed the Red Planet in apocalyptic-looking scenes of a thickening butterscotch haze. Unlike Opportunity, Curiosity is nuclear-powered, so doesn't face the same threats from the storm. NASA

NASA engineers are listening out for signals from the rover every day, John Callas, project manager on the agency's Mars Exploration Rover Project, wrote in an email on Friday. NASA doesn't expect to hear back until the dust begins to clear, the agency reported. But the storm is persisting for now, Callas said.

If the rover emerges from low-power mode, it should make contact with operators back home. Operators are tuning in to NASA's Deep Space Network (DSN)—a system of giant radio antennas on Earth and in orbit around our planet—for any hints of activity.

"We have been listening, but no low-gain antenna communications yet. And the storm continues in full force," Ray Arvidson, deputy principal investigator for the science payload on Opportunity and its long-silent companion Spirit, told space blog Inside Outer Space earlier this week.

Opportunity has been exploring the Red Planet since 2004. It has weathered dust storms in a long stint on Mars, but none quite like the current planet-engulfing behemoth.

"As of our latest Opportunity status report Saturday [June 30] this storm shows no sign of abating anytime soon," Jim Rice, geology team leader and co-investigator on the Mars Exploration Rover Project’s science team, wrote in an article for spaceflightinsider.com

However, Rice cautioned that reports of the rover's death were "very premature." "It’s a grim situation right now, no doubt about it, and we still have a long way to go in this our latest challenge on the Red Planet," he wrote. "However, we have an impressive record of overcoming challenges these past 14-and-a-half years and our team is the best on both worlds."

7_6_Dust Storm Mars Martian dust covers the Opportunity rover. MSSS/JPL-Caltech/NASA

Dust storms make it harder for light to reach Opportunity's solar panels. For a rover that runs on sunlight, that can be deadly. It needs power to ensure it stays at a safe temperature on the extremely cold planet.

There is no way of saying how long Opportunity can survive in low-power mode. "It depends on the level of charge in the batteries at the start of the dust storm, exactly how cold it gets and for how long," Paul Meacham, lead systems engineer on the European ExoMars Rover project, previously told Newsweek. The rover's age, he added, may affect the function of its ever-depleting batteries.

Luckily for Opportunity, key electronics are protected by an insulating box, Rice reported. The dust may also help keep it warm at night.

Read more: Is there life on Mars? This rover wants to find out

Callas previously told Newsweek he thinks the rover can make it through the cold, saying: "Although the rover is unpowered for lack of sunlight, it should stay warm enough." He confirmed on Friday that Opportunity could still weather the storm, saying: "There has been no change in our analysis about survival."

NASA's nuclear-powered Curiosity rover, on the other hand, is hard at work exploring the Red Planet's Perseverance Valley, the space agency reported.

This article has been updated to include further comment from John Callas.