NASA rover knocked out as gigantic dust storm envelops Mars - wistv.com - Columbia, South Carolina

NASA rover knocked out as gigantic dust storm envelops Mars

By MARCIA DUNN
AP Aerospace Writer

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP) - NASA's seemingly unstoppable Mars rover Opportunity has been knocked out by a gigantic dust storm that is enveloping the red planet and blotting out the sun.

Officials said Wednesday they're hopeful the rover will survive the storm, which already covers one-quarter of Mars and is expected to encircle the planet in another few days. It could be weeks or even months, though, until the sky clears enough for sunlight to reach the Martian surface and recharge Opportunity's batteries through its solar panels.

For now, Mars' oldest working rover is stuck in the middle of the raging storm, in round-the-clock darkness.

"By no means are we out of the woods here," said John Callas, the Opportunity project manager at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. "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."

Flight controllers tried late Tuesday night to contact Opportunity, but the rover did not respond. The storm has been growing since the end of May with unprecedented speed.

NASA launched the twin rovers Opportunity and Spirit in 2003 to study Martian rocks and soil. They landed in 2004. Spirit hasn't worked for several years. Opportunity, however, has kept exploring well past its expected mission lifetime.

Scientists aren't nearly as concerned about the newer, nuclear-powered Curiosity rover on the other side of Mars, which is already seeing darkening skies.

Dust storms crop up every so often at Mars, sending dust tens of miles (kilometers) into the atmosphere and turning day into night. Spacecraft orbiting Mars are too high to be affected.

There's no chance of Opportunity being buried or getting a wheel stuck in dust. Even in the worst of storms, only a layer of fine dust is left behind. Managers said the main concern is that dust could temporarily cover its optical instruments.

The rover's batteries are likely so low that only a clock is still working, to wake the spacecraft for periodic power-level checks, according to officials. If the clock also goes offline, then the rover won't know what time it is when it comes back on and could send back signals at any time.

This isn't Opportunity's first major brush with dust.

In 2007, a massive dust storm kept Opportunity silent for a few days. It jumped back into action after awakening from its deep self-protecting slumber.

This time, the rover's energy level is believed to be much lower. On the plus side, Martian summertime is approaching and that should keep temperatures up at night and prevent the batteries and other parts from freezing. Besides electrical heaters, Opportunity is equipped with eight tiny plutonium-powered heaters.

Scientists are eager to learn as much as they can about the dust storm to hone their weather forecasting skills. Astronauts living on Mars, for instance, wouldn't want to get caught outside in a fierce dust storm, where winds can reach 70 mph (113 kilometers per hour) - almost hurricane force. The Martian atmosphere is so thin that while the wind can lift dust off the surface, it doesn't topple a spacecraft.

Opportunity was in remarkably good health going into the storm, Callas said, with only an arthritic joint in its robotic arm.

"Keep in mind, we're talking about a rover that's been working at Mars, hanging in there, for 15 years and designed just for 90 days," said Jim Watzin, director of NASA's Mars exploration program. "It just doesn't get any better than that."

___

The Associated Press Health & Science Department receives support from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute's Department of Science Education. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

Copyright 2018 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

  • NationalMore>>

  • Roseanne Barr in interview: 'I made myself a hate magnet'

    Roseanne Barr in interview: 'I made myself a hate magnet'

    Sunday, June 24 2018 2:53 PM EDT2018-06-24 18:53:52 GMT
    Sunday, June 24 2018 4:35 PM EDT2018-06-24 20:35:48 GMT
    (Adam Rose/ABC via AP). In this image released by ABC, Roseanne Barr, left, and Laurie Metcalf appear in a scene from the reboot of the popular comedy series "Roseanne." ABC, which canceled its "Roseanne" revival over its star's racist tweet, said Thur...(Adam Rose/ABC via AP). In this image released by ABC, Roseanne Barr, left, and Laurie Metcalf appear in a scene from the reboot of the popular comedy series "Roseanne." ABC, which canceled its "Roseanne" revival over its star's racist tweet, said Thur...
    In an emotional interview, Roseanne Barr says she feels remorse for the racist tweet that prompted ABC to cancel the revival of "Roseanne.".More >>
    In an emotional interview, Roseanne Barr says she feels remorse for the racist tweet that prompted ABC to cancel the revival of "Roseanne.".More >>
  • At hub for border crossings, families spread throughout US

    At hub for border crossings, families spread throughout US

    Sunday, June 24 2018 2:43 PM EDT2018-06-24 18:43:48 GMT
    Sunday, June 24 2018 4:35 PM EDT2018-06-24 20:35:05 GMT
    (AP Photo/David J. Phillip). Immigrants from Honduras seeking asylum wait on the Gateway International Bridge, which connects the United States and Mexico, in Matamoros, Mexico on Sunday, June 24, 2018. The family has been waiting two days on the bridg...(AP Photo/David J. Phillip). Immigrants from Honduras seeking asylum wait on the Gateway International Bridge, which connects the United States and Mexico, in Matamoros, Mexico on Sunday, June 24, 2018. The family has been waiting two days on the bridg...
    In the Texas town of McAllen, Central American asylum-seekers are being released and are dispersing across the U.S.More >>
    In the Texas town of McAllen, Central American asylum-seekers are being released and are dispersing across the U.S.More >>
  • US restaurants host refugee chefs who offer a taste of home

    US restaurants host refugee chefs who offer a taste of home

    Sunday, June 24 2018 1:03 PM EDT2018-06-24 17:03:54 GMT
    Sunday, June 24 2018 4:30 PM EDT2018-06-24 20:30:53 GMT
    (AP Photo/Lorin Eleni Gill). In this photo taken June 20, 2018, Muna Anaee, prepares a ball of khobz orouk, a flatbread she would eat frequently in her native Iraq, at the Tawla restaurant kitchen in San Francisco during the inaugural Refugee Food Fest...(AP Photo/Lorin Eleni Gill). In this photo taken June 20, 2018, Muna Anaee, prepares a ball of khobz orouk, a flatbread she would eat frequently in her native Iraq, at the Tawla restaurant kitchen in San Francisco during the inaugural Refugee Food Fest...
    Restaurants in the U.S. - five of them in San Francisco - opened their kitchens for the first time to a program that allows refugees to showcase their cuisines and culinary skills.More >>
    Restaurants in the U.S. - five of them in San Francisco - opened their kitchens for the first time to a program that allows refugees to showcase their cuisines and culinary skills.More >>
Powered by Frankly