The dust storm on Mars is over, but Opportunity has yet to wake back up. Earlier this summer, the rover was forced into hibernation mode by an extreme Martian dust storm that darkened the skies of the Red Planet to a level we’ve literally never seen before. Most of the time, Mars has a tau, a scientific term that refers to the opacity of the Martian atmosphere of 1-2. During the largest major dust storm we’ve previously seen, the tau was roughly 6. This time, the tau from the massive storm, and Opportunity is solar powered.
NASA has now announced that the window of Opportunity is remarkably short. In 45 days, if NASA hasn’t heard from the rover or been able to contact it, it’ll pull the plug on the mission. And that time frame has many engineers and scientists upset, given the mechanics of how dust and dust storms practically work on Mars.
During the 14 years its been on Mars, Opportunity’s power levels have fluctuated enormously for two primary reasons. First, the rover’s reliance on solar power means that the amount of energy it receives is dependent on Mars’ position from the Sun. Mars distance from the Sun varies from 1.38 AU to 1.67 AU, and the long Martian winters provide significantly less power overall. Second, the same wind that occasionally covers the rover in dust has also been known to clean and polish the solar panels, in some cases bringing them up to nearly full power once again.
Whether the rover can wake up at all will depend in part on how clear the solar panels are. And team members who work on Opportunity are pointing out that NASA’s 45-day limit appears to have come from nowhere. When Spirit went quiet in 2010, NASA spent 10 months on actively attempting to communicate with the rover and five months passively listening for its communication. The 45-day clock won’t start until the tau above the rover is confirmed to be at or below 1.5, but as The Atlantic details, many on the NASA Opportunity team are unhappy at the idea of pulling the plug on the project without turning over every rock and making every effort to get the rover up and running.NASA Issues Arbitrary Deadline to Reawaken Mars Rover