NASA Opportunity: Lost Rover Spotted for First Time Since Planet-encircling Dust Storm

NASA’s Opportunity rover has been silent since June—caught in an enormous dust storm that eventually encircled Mars. Although the raging storm has now eased off, Oppy’s engineers back home are yet to hear back from the faithful, trundling explorer.

But now, a camera on the space agency’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter has caught a glimpse of the silent rover amidst the rocky crevices of the planet's Perseverance Valley. Just a tiny dot in the sweeping, sandy landscape, it’s a stark reminder of the rover’s perilous situation.

9_26_Opportunity Mars NASA's Opportunity rover emerges as a dot in this photo that shows Mars' settling dust storm. University of Arizona/JPL-Caltech/NASA

When dust surrounded the rover it stopped light reaching its solar panels. Oppy, therefore, entered a kind of hibernation. Although it's been quiet for months, that doesn't mean the rover won't wake up. "Even unpowered, the rover should stay warm enough to avoid damage throughout the storm period," John Callas, Opportunity project manager, told Newsweek in an email.

Fellow Martian traveler Curiosity uses nuclear power, which has allowed it to keep up its investigations of the red planet.    

At its height, the dust storm was so intense and widespread it blocked light from hitting the surface of the Red Planet. Such storms aren’t unheard of, but they aren't usually as big as this one. Callas told Newsweek back in August the engineering team was "cautiously optimistic" the rover will recover. "Opportunity has proven to be extremely resilient over the years, but this is the biggest Martian dust storm it has encountered in its 14-plus years of exploring the Red Planet," he said. 

Now, he says his team is "very hopeful, but still very concerned."

Earlier this month, engineers announced they were stepping up attempts to communicate with Oppy as skies began to clear and the amount of sunlight reaching Mars’s surface increased. 

As of Wednesday, Callas said, the team "have listened for 115 Martian days and have radiated 79 commands to elicit a response." But so far, Opportunity hasn't phoned home. 

Social media users have been pining for the sleeping rover online, sharing photos, words of solidarity and even poems. “Rise and shine, little space robot/ You’ve still got more science to do/ Here on the pale blue dot/ We’re all rooting for you,” wrote Twitter user and engineer Steph Evz back in August.

Opportunity landed on Mars back in 2004 for a planned three-month mission. One of its key objectives was to understand more about the rocks on the Red Planet. Understanding the planet’s geology, scientists hoped, would help reveal if Martian environments could be conducive to life.

In other space news, a NASA-led study recently threw a lifeline to exoplanet Proxima b, whose potential habitability has been a subject of fierce debate. A solar observatory in New Mexico was shuttered without warning, fuelling wild conspiracy theories. But court documents revealed the closure was part of a child porn probe, Reuters reported. 

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

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