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Is NASA's Mars Opportunity Dead? Rover Silent Amid Massive Dust Storm On Red Planet

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NASA's Mars Opportunity rover, which has been collecting scientific data from the surface of the Red Planet over the past 15 years, has lost contact with Earth.

Opportunity Rover Fell Silent

The U.S. space agency earlier declared a spacecraft emergency for the rover after a Mars dust storm blocked out sunlight on the Martian surface.

The darkness prevented the solar-powered rover from charging its batteries sufficiently which left it critically short on power. Opportunity has fallen silent as a result.

NASA said that mission engineers attempted to contact the rover on Tuesday but failed to hear back from it.

They now assume that the charge in the batteries has dropped below 24 volts causing the rover to enter low power fault mode. Under this condition, all subsystems except the mission clock are turned off. The clock is programmed to wake the rover's computer to check power levels.

Hope For The Opportunity Rover

Because of the amount of dust now blanking a quarter of the planet's surface, engineers think it is unlikely that the rover will get enough sunlight to charge back up for the next several days.

Nonetheless, the mission team is still optimistic that the Opportunity will become operational again once the storm is over.

In a press conference held on Wednesday, NASA described what was happening and explained why scientists and engineers are hopeful that they will still hear from the rover.

The Red Planet is getting closer to summer, which means that the temperatures are rising. Scientists consider this good news because the main threat that the rover currently faces is death by freezing.

Calculations, however, revealed that Opportunity will not experience temperatures colder than minus 36 degrees Celsius in the foreseeable future. This temperature is survivable for the robot, which designed to tolerate temperatures up to minus 55 degrees Celsius.

"We should be able to ride out this storm," said John Callas, Opportunity project manager at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, "We're concerned, but we're hopeful that the storm will clear and the rover will begin to communicate to us."

Nonetheless, the fate of the Opportunity remains uncertain. The storm, which was detected on May 30, is one of the most intense that scientists have ever seen.

"As of June 10, it covered more than 15.8 million square miles (41 million square kilometers) -- about the area of North America and Russia combined. It has blocked out so much sunlight, it has effectively turned day into night for Opportunity," NASA said.

The storm could last up to a month. Until then, it remains unclear whether or not the Opportunity rover has survived the storm.

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