A massive Mars dust storm, which has covered an area greater than all of North America, threatens to undo NASA’s work on the red planet, warned scientists.
Dust storms on the red planet are not unusual but remain infrequent. According to Space.com, the dust storm was first spotted earlier this week, and in a matter of days, has ballooned to cover an area of up to 7 million square miles. In the days to come, the dust storm may expand further, having already blanketed the Perseverance Valley, which is where NASA’s Opportunity rover is stationed.
As a result, NASA has had to suspend the duties of the rover, with scientists unsure of how long it would take for Opportunity to start working fully again. On Mars, dust storms can crop up suddenly, NASA said in a statement, but it could take weeks or even months for them to subside.
“Full dust storms like this one are not surprising, but are infrequent. They can crop up suddenly but last weeks, even months.”
After NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter spotted the dust storm gathering pace on June 7, its team notified the Opportunity rover team, helping the officials to quickly embark on a contingency plan for the rover.
NASA’s Opportunity has been exploring Mars since 2004, but it functions on solar power. Now that the area it is stationed in — the vast Martian plains of Meridiani Planum — is blanketed in this huge dust storm, the sunlight that Opportunity receives has diminished significantly. This led NASA to compare the situation on the red planet as similar to “an extremely smoggy day that blots out sunlight.”
Its biggest concern remains Opportunity getting too cold as the result of receiving little to no sunlight. If the dust storm lasts long, it could impair the rover thus killing it. This is what is believed to have killed NASA’s Spirit rover after it was stuck in Martian dust in 2010.
“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,” NASA said.
Having said that, scientists hope that Opportunity can sustain the Martian dust storm because it has seen worst days. In 2007, Mars experienced a dust storm which covered the entire planet, forcing Opportunity to sort of couch down for two weeks. During the time, the rover stopped phoning in to NASA to save power, defying NASA scientists who had worried if the rover would be able to power its vital survival heaters with the low power levels caused by that dust storm.
Opportunity, which was designed for a 90-day mission, has survived on Mars for 15 years, and if it can somehow circumvent this massive dust storm as well, it would be a great compliment to its unwavering tenacity.