Maybe you’ve heard, but if not, there was recently a planet-wide dust storm all over Mars.
This is not a very unusual phenomenon – large-scale storms blow across Mars fairly regularly. Their existence was first recorded by the Viking probes that landed on Mars in the 1970’s. What made this storm so unusual was its size and duration. It is the longest, largest recorded storm of its kind on Mars. What most of the buzz has been focused on was not the storm, though. It was the NASA Mars Rovers that had to weather this brute of a storm that have drawn the most attention in the past four months, specifically, Opportunity Rover.
Opportunity Rover landed on Mars in 2004 and has been hard at work ever since, even though it was only supposed to have a short mission of approximately ninety days (they work in Mars Sols over at NASA). This intrepid and durable rover relies on power gathered by its solar array and this is what has caused all the consternation at NASA recently. Opportunity Rover, or Oppy for short, has not been able to charge its batteries in months due to the thick layer of atmospheric dust currently encircling Mars. At its worst, the storm blocked the daylight completely, turning the day into night for a lengthy period. Contact with Oppy was lost on 10 June 2018, and the operations team at NASA have been patiently waiting for the storm to abate enough to begin signalling the rover, hoping for a signal return from Opportunity. So far, no signal has returned, indicating the rover is still in a hibernation state (with a possibility of several fault states causing its failure). With this continued status to support them, NASA made an announcement last week that many of the scientists and engineers that work on the rover programs don’t agree with. The announcement said that the Opportunity Rover would be considered lost and the program permanently suspended if the rover did not respond with a return signal in forty-five days from the time the atmospheric opacity of
Mars reaches 1.5 tau (a measurement used for how much particulate is in Mars’s atmosphere).
This was met with a push-back from the science and space community and many of the program’s engineers. They believe the window of time – forty-five days – is too short and that it is short-sighted to give up on Oppy based on an arbitrarily contrived deadline.
I agree and here’s why.
Opportunity Rover is a remarkable work of engineering and science. It has logged some incredible findings, traveled over twenty-eight miles (forty-five kilometers) in fourteen years at a max. speed of two inches/second (five centimeters/second). Oppy holds the record for longest distance traveled off-world. It significantly contributed to the science findings of rock and soil compositions on Mars in pursuit of answers relating to the possibility of the existence of water on Mars at some point in history. Opportunity is one of three rovers to have made it to Mars and done scientific analysis of the Red Planet. Spirit Rover landed a few weeks before Opportunity in 2004 and did missions on Mars until it was lost to soft sand in 2009. Curiosity Rover landed on Mars in 2012 and is active currently in the Gale Crater.
These three machines have advanced the science and our understanding of Mars in immeasurable ways. Together, they have formed the most comprehensive picture we have of Earth’s closest neighbor. Without them, the Red Planet would still be mostly a mystery. Instead, they have paved and continue to pave the way for eventual human landings on Mars. With the arrival of the Insight probe later this year, and the anticipated Mars 2020 Rover mission still to come, Opportunity and its sister robots are in a unique position to observe and report on our behalf.
I see the dust storm as an invaluable clue to Mars’s existence, and it needs to be studied as carefully as any of the other science that is coming back from Mars. The storm provides a great opportunity (no pun intended!) to build valuable data that will be used to help human visitors to Mars weather these storms safely. I think that Oppy should be given every chance to come back online. There are clues there, information worth gleaning about how these storms affect systems, influence machine electronics and output and, most importantly, how they recover from the devastating impact of such a massive natural event. Opportunity sits in the middle of the most significant event to happen on Mars in our observable history, to throw away the chance to understand more about these storms is a waste. We hope that NASA gives Oppy more time. We hope Oppy will signal back soon and most of all, we hope she will continue her incredible mission of discovery on a strange new world.