The giant dust storm that engulfed the entire red planet is beginning to subside, which means the Opportunity rover could soon catch a break and awaken from its enforced slumber, NASA announced in a blog post tracking the Mars Exploration Program.
The solar-powered robot has been unable to recharge its batteries ever since the massive dust clouds raging on Mars blocked out the sun, cutting Opportunity — or Oppy, as NASA endearingly calls it — from the much needed sunlight.
The venerable rover, which has been operational for almost 15 years, hasn’t checked back in more than two months. About 10 days before NASA declared the Martian dust storm a global event, Opportunity went out of juice and has been silent ever since June 10, the Inquisitr previously reported.
The good news is that the dust storm on Mars is ebbing, which means we might get to hear from Oppy soon enough.
“The planet-encircling dust storm on Mars continues to decay, although in fits and starts,” NASA officials said in an Opportunity mission update.
According to the space agency, “more dust is falling out of the atmosphere than is being raised back into it.” This suggests that “skies might soon clear enough for the solar-powered rover to recharge and attempt to ‘phone home,’” NASA stated earlier this week.
All the Opportunity rover needs in order to get a shot at recharging its batteries is for the amount of sunlight-blocking haze in the Martian atmosphere, known as “tau,” to drop below 2.0, explained NASA officials.
As reported by the Inquisitr, the last tau measurements in Oppy’s area — Perseverance Valley inside Endeavor Crater, located in Meridiani Planum — indicated values close to 11. NASA notes that tau measurements on June 10, the day that Opportunity went silent, showed a value of 10.8.
Things have significantly improved since then, reveals the space agency.
“Atmospheric opacity (tau) over the rover site was estimated down near 2.1, but then popped up to 2.5,” NASA wrote in the mission update, dated August 7-14 (Mars solar days 5168 through 5175).
NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter is keeping a close watch over the red planet, waiting for the skies to clear so that its wide-angle camera, MARCI (Mars Color Imager), can snap photos of the surface features.
The mission’s engineers are also keeping track of what goes on with Oppy with the help of NASA’s Deep Space Network, which pings the rover during specific intervals when it’s scheduled to wake up and search for any signals that it might be emitting.
“The science team is also sending a command three times a week to elicit a beep if the rover happens to be awake,” NASA points out.
At the same time, any radio signals coming from Mars during Oppy’s daylight hours are carefully recorded and then analyzed in the hope the rover’s “voice” might be detected.
When the Opportunity rover finally gets a chance to bask is some sunlight, the team expects the rover will try to call home, as it has been programed to do in case of an “uploss fault.” This occurs whenever communications with Earth are severed for a longer period of time and instructs the robot to check its communications equipment and try to contact Ground Control.
Aside from the uploss fault, the engineers suspect that Oppy may have suffered a low-power fault, which caused it to go into hibernation, and a clock fault as well, meaning that the rover’s onboard clock has gone awry.
“If the rover doesn’t know what time it is, it doesn’t know when it should be attempting to communicate,” said NASA. “The rover can use environmental clues, like an increase in sunlight, to make assumptions about the time.”
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