If you’ve been anywhere around social media this week, you have have seen people desperately calling #WakeUpOppy. Since a dust storm rolled over Mars back in the spring, the long-lived rover Opportunity hasn’t been able to obtain enough sunlight through it’s solar panels to cover its daily use. On June 10, Opportunity fell silent. The storm raged through the summer, but finally in just the last few weeks it has waned. Sunlight should be reaching the rover again in sufficient quantities to power its systems. That is, it unless the storm left Opportunity under a shroud of fine dust.
Opportunity can wake itself. But since the storm began to clear, NASA has received no signal to indicate the rover is back on line. Despite the ‘thoughts and thoughts’ of well-wishers over the Internet during the last week, there’s still been no peep from the probe. But the dust storm is only mostly dead. And the same might be true of Opportunity.
Nature reports that NASA has one more trick up its sleeve — but it’s not ready to play its final card just yet.
When the dust abates, NASA will use the antennas of its global Deep Space Network to listen for signals from the spacecraft, and send messages to it, for at least 45 days. After that the agency will listen, possibly in a more passive mode that requires fewer staff hours, until at least January 2019. By that point, the Martian summer will have given way to autumn at Opportunity’s landing site. That change in seasons could kick up windstorms and clear any dust that might be coating the rover’s solar panels.
Unlike some previous probes, Opportunity can potentially wake from a dead-battery situation if its panels clear enough that it begins to receive power. However, the longer Opportunity goes without contact, the greater the chance its dusty, unheated systems have experienced a fault.
For those who have nursed Opportunity through 14 years of a 90-day mission, this is a nervous time. And if the rover never answers again … it will be bittersweet, but a job well done.
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