Opportunity in the Martian Dust Storm at Perserverence Valley
In this episode of Orbital News, Alex shares the story of the Opportunity rover that is attempting to survive yet another massive dust storm in it's 15 years on the Red Planet. We cover info on the storm itself and the concerns for Opportunity as it waits with low power until the storm subsides. Learn about the amazing martian versatile rover and the most severe optical dust storm ever observed on the planet by robotic human emissaries.
Welcome to this episode of Orbital News, I am your science communicator Alex G. Orphanos and today in space, Mars is experiencing a severe and massive dust storm that’s covered as much as a quarter of the planet at this point. We’ve been monitoring the Opportunity Rover, as it’s stuck in the middle of the storm in low power mode. With the storm continuing to create poor solar conditions, we wait to see if an opportunity opens up for the rover so it can charge its batteries and continue to survive.
NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter originally detected the storm on Wednesday, May 30th, 2018. Once the storm was heading towards the Opportunity rover at Perseverance Valley, the orbiter informed the rover team and a plan was created.
The biggest concerns for Opportunity were not with the strength of the storm like the one you may have seen in the movie ‘The Martian'. The major concern was that the dust clouds would block out sunlight that the rover needs to charge it’s batteries, considering its a solar powered spacecraft.
The other major concern comes with maintaining operating temperature and not allowing the instruments and batteries on the rover to get too cold. NASA’s update (the link to this can be found in the description of this episode) gave us an idea about the contingency plan for keeping the rover warm, and I quote,
“The project's management prepared for the possibility that Opportunity couldn't balance low levels of power with its energy-intensive survival heaters, which protect its batteries from Mars' extreme cold. It's not unlike running a car in the winter so that the cold doesn't sap its battery charge. There is a risk to the rover if the storm persists for too long and Opportunity gets too cold while waiting for the skies to clear."
Just to put this martian dust storm into perspective, within a week, the storm had grown in size to an area larger than North America.
A recent update on the mission’s status was made available on July 1st from an update written by Jim Rice, the Geology Team Leader / Co-Investigator on the Mars Exploration Rover Project’s Science Team on SpaceflightInsider.com. In the article, Jim reflects on his experiences working on 'Oppy' over it’s mission lifetime, including this current storm. One of his concerns was that the Opportunity rover was showing extremely low voltage readings. On June 1st Opportunity read a healthy 645 watt-hour power level. The last reading from June 10th showed only 22 watt-hours, which is the lowest reading they’ve been on the Opportunity rover this entire mission, according to Jim.
His major concern is that Opportunity won’t be able to maintain heat throughout the storm, but the thermal experts on the team believe the WEB or Warm Electronics Box, is insulated well enough to maintain the critical temperatures so there is no thermal damage to the batteries and computer systems.
I also found this part very interesting: Jim Rice explained how one aspect of the dust storm was actually beneficial to preventing thermal damage to Opportunity:
“Fortunately for us it is also the Martian Spring, and the dust (while hindering our solar power in the day) helps keep us warmer at night.”
The Opportunity Rover is still waiting for the storm to subside and open up enough sunlight to charge and heat it up again. But this isn’t the first storm for Opportunity to weather. It’s not even the largest. Back in 2007 there was actually a much larger storm that Opportunity was able to survive. There were two weeks of minimal operations and several days without contact from the rover to save power and heat itself up.
This storm has had communications black-outs since June 10th, it’s July 5th and according to Jim Rice this current storm may be more severe than the one in 2007.
“One of the last science measurements that Opportunity collected was what we call a tau, which is a measure of the optical depth, and informs us as to how much dust is in the atmosphere. This tau value was calculated to be 10.8, the highest (worst) ever recorded by a surface Mars mission. The previous record was by Viking at 9. This recent storm is far more severe and our rover is 11 years older (Opportunity has been on the surface of the Red Planet since January 25, 2004).”
The extreme cold is what is believed to have put the Spirit Rover (Opportunities twin) offline. Since the rover’s operating temperatures went too low it was unable to start back up again. But this is to take nothing away from these rovers, that were both designed to last only 90 days! Good ole Opportunity has lasted 15 years on the red planet and as of the recording of this episode may still be operating, is currently surviving, and will hopefully be providing us with more science to come.
Although it seems we have Martian Rover technology figured out, given the state of opportunity and Curiosity, Martian weather still has plenty of mysteries for us to solve. Take this quote from the NASA article updating on Opportunity during the storm:
“Full dust storms like this one are not surprising, but are infrequent. They can crop up suddenly but last weeks, even months. During southern summer, sunlight warms dust particles, lifting them higher into the atmosphere and creating more wind. That wind kicks up yet more dust, creating a feedback loop that NASA scientists still seek to understand.”
In the time being, we will keep monitoring the incredibly martian-versatile Opportunity rover as it bunkers down to survive the end of this massive self-perpetuating dust storm.
If you’d like to learn more about this incredible martian dust storm and the Opportunity Rover, make sure to check out the links in the description for this episode.
Also, don’t forget to check out our website at todayinspace.net for all things space! May we recommend our thought experiment about the Space Force and NASA’s new Space Policy Directives, or maybe you’d like to hear some interviews from either the March for Science in Boston this year or with Brian Sofiel of Stofiel Aerospace who with his daugther are innvoating and changing the way everyone gains access to space with 3D printed rockets! Please subscribe to us on Apple Podcasts and Youtube to help us grow and stay up to date when a new episode comes out.
If you’d like to get updates on all things space please follow us on twitter @todayinspacepod and @elgr3co to get live updates from the space industry as we come across them. Thank you for joining us for some orbital news, my name is Alex G. Orphanos asking you to, as always, spread love and spread science. Have a great week and Happy Independence Day to all Americans! Enjoy your weekend and I challenge you to think about what independence means to you for a few minutes while you’re enjoying the weather and the holiday.