NASA Holds Off Opportunity Rover Operations Amid Massive Dust Storm On Mars

Huge Dust Storm on Mars Sidelines NASA's Opportunity Rover

The basic process for finding Martian organic compounds can be boiled down to two steps - separate organic molecules from the Martian rocks and sediments and give them an electric charge so they can be detected and identified by the mass spectrometer, NASA said.

On Sunday, Opportunity phoned home, sending a transmission to engineers back on Earth.

An enormous dust storm on Mars has suspended NASA's exploration rover Opportunity from conducting scientific work, the USA space agency said Sunday in a statement.

On Friday (8 June), Opportunity's operators suspended all scientific observations for the rover in a power conservation effort to allow Opportunity to use what power was available to it to maintain heater operation for its critical systems - maintaining temperatures for Opportunity's systems to combat the low temperatures on Mars.

The storm is actually 7 million square miles across, meaning that it's larger than North America, according to NASA. It increased the atmospheric opacity in the region, creating a smog-like situation where most of the sunlight gets blocked out. The space agency said that this undesirable condition is similar to that of "an extremely smoggy day that blots out sunlight". Faced with dwindling power reserves and no recharge in sight, the JPL team running the rover opted to put it into minimal operations mode.

The space agency says the current storm has an opacity level of 10.8, and that 2007's severe dust storm had a 5.5.

"It's not unlike running a auto in the winter so that the cold doesn't sap its battery charge", NASA writes in a release.

NASA announced on Friday that the Opportunity rover is now being hit by the worst dust storm it's ever experienced in the 15 years since it landed on Mars.

"Soon after orbiter team realised how close storm was coming to Opportunity, rover's team were made aware of this, and they started making a plan to cope up with this uncertain event", said one of the NASA official.

Full dust storms like this one are not surprising, but are infrequent. The small blue dot in the below image of the storm (click to enlarge) indicates Opportunity's location in Perseverance Valley. With dust clouds obscuring the sky, by Wednesday, June 6, Opportunity's battery levels had already "dropped significantly" NASA says. "They can occur suddenly and last for weeks or even months", - stated in the official notice of NASA. During summer in the south, the Sun warms dust particles, causing them to rise up higher into the sky. The rover has been operated for more than 50 times longer than originally planned. This produces more wind, which kicks up even more dust, creating a feedback loop.

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