Mars Opportunity Rover Is Still Silent After a Mega Dust Storm: Here's How NASA Is Trying to Make Contact

Mars photo
A side-by-side image shows how dust has enveloped the red planet, courtesy of the Mars Color Imager camera on board NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

NASA's Opportunity Rover has been operating on the surface of Mars for more than 14 years, providing us with numerous fascinating insights into the geology and environmental conditions of the red planet. But since a June 10 dust storm, operators have not heard from the vehicle.

The storm, which eventually encircled the entire planet, blotted out the sun, meaning that the rover could not recharge its solar-powered batteries. This forced NASA to suspend scientific operations as the vehicle shifted to a low energy-use state, just sufficient to keep its critical heaters running.

Now the dust storm appears to be subsiding, according to NASA, giving operators hope that skies might clear enough for them to make contact with the rover again. But no one will know what state Opportunity is in until the first signal is received.

In the worst-case scenario, its batteries or heaters could have failed, which would have left the rover at the mercy of Mars's extreme nighttime cold. Opportunity's twin, known as Spirit, is thought to have perished because of the cold in 2010, after becoming stuck in the Martian sand.

There are reasons to be optimistic, however, according to NASA. Operators performed several examinations of Opportunity's batteries before the storm and found they were generally in good health, so there likely won't be too much degradation.

In addition, because dust storms warm the environment slightly and Opportunity's location was entering summer when the storm hit, it is thought that the rover should have stayed warm enough to survive.

But how are engineers at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, and elsewhere attempting to make contact with the vehicle? First, they will need to wait until the amount of sunlight reaching the surface hits sufficient levels for Opportunity to recharge its batteries. NASA is monitoring this using a wide-angle camera on its Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.

While this is happening, engineers at NASA's Deep Space Network, which communicates with planetary probes, is making several attempts a week to talk with Opportunity by sending signals at scheduled "wake-up" times and listening for a response.

Furthermore, JPL is also searching for signals using a different method. Every day, engineers use instruments designed to search for radio signals to constantly monitor the planet during the rover's daylight hours, searching for any hints of activity.

If engineers do hear back from the rover, there could be a lag of several weeks before they detect a second signal, because it will take time for it to fully recover, much like a patient coming out of a coma. Therefore, it could be a while before engineers have the data they need to take any action and attempt a full recovery.

Before this happens, they will need to gather important information about the rover's condition, including the state of its battery, solar cells and operating temperature. The rover will also be instructed to take selfies and test its movement to determine whether dust has affected its functioning in any way.

Even if contact is made, there is still a possibility that the rover could be irreparably damaged. For example, its batteries may have been inactive for so long that their capacity has been reduced. This would negatively affect its continued operations.

Opportunity has survived similar adverse weather events in the past, though. In 2007, a dust storm covered the entire Martian surface, forcing the rover to switch to minimal operations for two weeks.

Opportunity and Spirit landed on the red planet in January 2004. The rover was designed to operate for only 90 days but has vastly exceeded its original mission length.