Mars dust storm
© NASA
NASA's veteran Mars rover has been hunkering down since last week in the midst of an unprecedented dust storm that is now just days away from becoming a 'planet-circling dust event.' The storm has been growing since the end of May and now covers 14-million square miles (35-million square kilometers) of Mars' surface, or a quarter of the planet
Mars rover Opportunity is in trouble. NASA engineers attempted to contact Opportunity yesterday, June 12th, but did not hear back from the nearly 15-year old rover. The problem: A huge dust storm is blanketing Perseverance Valley where Opportunity has been working. This sequence of images from NASA's Mars Reconnaisance Orbiter shows the progression of the storm: see here.

The huge dust cloud is highlighted in red. Soon after it appeared on May 31st, it swirled south to envelope Opportunity. Right now, the dust is so thick in Perseverance Valley, day has been turned into night. The solar powered rover is being deprived of the sunlight it needs to charge its batteries.

NASA is now operating under the assumption that the charge in Opportunity's batteries has dipped below 24 volts and the rover has entered low power fault mode, a condition where all subsystems, except a mission clock, are turned off. The rover's mission clock is programmed to wake Opportunity at intervals so it can check power levels. If the batteries don't have enough charge, the rover will put itself back to sleep again.


In a teleconference today, NASA planners expressed optimism that Opportunity can weather this storm and wake up again after the skies clear. It may take days or weeks for this to occur, however.

This is a dust storm of rare size. It is now on the verge of circumnavigating the entire globe, overlying more than a quarter of Mars' land area. It is so large, astronomers can photograph it using amateur telescopes. Indeed, Joseph Rueck saw the storm starting on May 31st using his backyard telescope in Seastian, Florida.