THE NASA rover "Opportunity", which is stationed on Mars, has fallen silent as a big dust storm enveloped the Red Planet in the past 24 hours.
If the dust storm continues at this rate, the rover won't be able to charge for the next few days and will put itself back to sleep.
NASA's long-lived Opportunity Mars rover is hunkering down to conserve power in a bid to weather a huge dust storm blanketing the red planet that has, in effect, turned day into night for the solar-powered robot.
Scientists are not almost as concerned about the newer, nuclear-powered Curiosity rover on the other side of Mars, which is already seeing darkening skies. Engineers hope that the storm will provide some atmospheric shielding against the planet's dramatic daily temperature swings, Callas said.
"The current dust storm is providing an unprecedented chance to study Mars", Watzin said.
The space agency assumes that the rover's batteries are in an emergency low-power mode after they reached critically-low levels.
The mission clock will trigger the computer to turn back on to check power levels sporadically, NASA said.
"Our expectation at this point is that the rover has gone to sleep, it's in this low-power mode and it will remain in that low power mode until there's sufficient energy to charge the batteries back above a certain threshold", Callas said.
The image above shows progressive views from Opportunity's mastcam, as the dust storm intensified since it was first spotted on May 30, 2018. At this rate, NASA says it will probably take at least a week before there's adequate levels of sunlight to recharge.
Program managers have requested additional communications coverage through NASA's Deep Space Network to keep close tabs on the rover during its latest trial by dust. If the charge dips too low, the rover won't know what time it is, though there are systems in place to deal with that.
Once the storm clears, even if NASA engineers can re-establish contact with Opportunity, they may find another vexing problem: "We may have a lot of dust on this vehicle that we have to deal with", Callas said.
A senior official there said: "It's like having a loved one in coma in the hospital". "This storm is threatening, and we don't know how long it will last, and we don't know what the environment will be like once it clears". Originally, this robotic rover was only meant to operate on Mars for 90 Martian days (or sols), which works out to a little over 90 Earth days.
Cold is thought to have resulted in the loss of Spirit-Opportunity's twin-in 2010, which became stuck in the Martian sand.
As of June 12, the tau value for Opportunity's dust storm was estimated at almost 11! They occur during summer in the southern hemisphere, when sunlight warms dust particles and lifts them higher into the atmosphere, creating more wind. Such storms last for weeks, sometimes months, but stop when the air temperatures equalize.