NASA decided to suspend the operations of the Opportunity rover due to a massive dust storm in Mars that is bigger than North America.
The Opportunity rover has been up on Mars longer than expected, reaching 5,000 Martian days in February. That does not mean that NASA will risk losing its longest-working explorer to a dust storm though.
NASA Suspends Opportunity Rover Amid Massive Martian Dust Storm
NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, which reached a milestone of its own last year with its 50,000th orbit of the Red Planet, first detected the massive dust storm on June 1. The Opportunity team was informed of the dust storm's close proximity to the rover, giving enough time for preparations.
Within days, the dust storm expanded to over 7 million square miles, which is an area that is bigger than North America. It has covered Perseverance Valley, where Opportunity is currently located, and has blotted out the sunlight.
The Opportunity rover uses solar panels for power and to recharge its batteries, and by June 6, its power levels had dropped significantly. This required the team to shift the rover to minimal operations while the massive dust storm rages on.
The dust storm, meanwhile, is currently not affecting the Curiosity rover, which was the subject of NASA's recent press conference. The rover, on the other side of Mars at Gale Crater, discovered ancient organic matter and the presence of methane. Both findings may mean life on Mars, but further evidence is needed to confirm it.
This Is Not Opportunity's First Rodeo (Or Dust Storm)
The current dust storm, however, is not the first one that Opportunity will go through while on Mars. In 2007, an even larger dust storm swept through the Red Planet, resulting in two weeks of minimal operations that included several days with no contact to save power. Opportunity survived that ordeal, but its twin rover in the mission, Spirit, was lost.
The two things that the team needs to balance are maintaining low power consumption for Opportunity while it is not able to recharge due to the dust storm, and the energy-intensive heaters that protect the rover's batteries from the extreme cold of Mars. The risks are Opportunity losing all its power before the storm subsides, or not pushing enough energy to the heaters to protect the rover from the cold.
It remains to be seen whether Opportunity will survive the massive dust storm, but the rover definitely has the entire NASA rooting for it.