Mars Opportunity rover is in danger of dying from a dust storm

Engineers are balancing low power levels with the need for heaters.

The Mars Opportunity rover is caught in a dust storm, and the craft is hunkered down doing its best to survive the intensifying weather. The storm was first detected on Friday June 1st by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, at which point the rover's team was notified because of the weather event's proximity to Opportunity. The rover uses solar panels, so a dust storm could have an extremely negative impact on Opportunity's power levels and its batteries.

By Wednesday June 6th, Opportunity was in minimal operations mode because of sharply decreasing power levels. The brave little rover is continuing to weather the storm; it sent a transmission back to Earth Sunday morning, which is a good sign. It means there's still enough charge left in the batteries to communicate with home, despite the fact that the storm is continuing to worsen. The blue dot below is where NASA thinks Opportunity is located in the storm.

The main concern here isn't the dust storm itself. It's the need to keep the rover's heaters operational while maintaining a minimal power level in the batteries. This isn't the first storm that Opportunity has weathered, but it is the worst. According to NASA, the weather event the rover faced in 2007 had an opacity level around 5.5. The estimate for this current storm is somewhere around 10.8.

Opportunity is a hardy little rover, though, and it has continually defied our expectations over the last 15 years. The rover was only designed to last for a 90-day mission, and yet it's still going. Here's hoping that Oppy will continue its trek across the Martian surface for many, many days to come.

Update (June 14th): NASA held a press conference yesterday about Opportunity, and while things are still tentative, there's some good news: the team does believe that Opportunity can survive this storm. The temperature is not expected to drop below the rover's minimum allowable temperature, which means that Oppy has a fighting chance.

Update (June 13th): NASA released more information about Opportunity last night, and things don't look good. The rover's team tried to contact Opportunity yesterday and didn't receive a response. They are assuming this means that the rover's batteries are now critically low, and it's currently in low power fault mode. This means that all subsystems except the mission clock have been shut down, and the computer will automatically reawaken to check power levels.

Due to the size of this dust storm (which now covers about one-quarter of the planet), it's unlikely that Oppy will have the chance to recharge anytime soon. That means that the rover will be in this sleep/wake cycle for a while yet -- until it's able to recharge its batteries enough to send a message home, or until it goes to sleep for good. Hang on, little guy. We're rooting for you.

Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS