Amid the thickest and darkest dust storm so far, NASA's Curiosity rover manages to take a selfies shot with Mars soil as the foreground.
Curiosity's camera called the Mars Hand Lens Imager photographed itself on June 15 during the intense dust storm. NASA scientists said it is the worst dust storm they observed so far, which made the skies look darker even if its midday. They estimated that the storm could go on for weeks.
"The dust here is thicker than anything I have ever encountered, going back to Viking missions. It's dark, like the end of [the] twilight dark," said Ray Arvidson, Mars Exploration Rover deputy principal investigator, who also served on NASA's Viking Landers from 1977 to 1982.
Curiosity is a nuclear-powered car-sized rover that began its mission on Mars in 2012. Environment changes such as dust storms do not necessarily affect Curiosity's performance because it operates on plutonium-238 rather than solar cells.
Kevin Gill, a NASA software engineer, put together the images, which Curiosity took into a single panorama shot. The rover snapped itself sitting on Martian soil. A small drill hole on a rock and orange dust is seen on the image's foreground.
The drilling is part of NASA's mission to collect soil samples from Mars. The activities temporarily stopped in December 2016 after suffering from a mechanical snag. Curiosity then resumed in May, where it drilled 2 inches down the rock to know how much soil samples can be taken from it.
What Happened To Opportunity Rover?
Meanwhile, the 15-year-old Opportunity rover went offline on June 10 as it is trying to conserve power until the storm passes. Opportunity needs sunlight to power its solar panels, but until its energy reserves are low, Mars's cold temperatures could disable its electronic circuits.
"This is the ideal storm for Mars science," said Jim Watzin, director of NASA's Mars Exploration Program at the agency's headquarters in Washington. "We have a historic number of spacecraft operating at the Red Planet. Each offers a unique look at how dust storms form and behave — knowledge that will be essential for future robotic and human missions."
As of June 17, the storm has an opacity level or tau of 10.8. The previous storm had a tau of 5.5, which pertains to the veil of dust that blows around.
One advantage of the dust storm is that it swirls extreme temperatures on Mars's surface. The latest data showed that Opportunity's temperature reached about negative 29 degrees Celsius.
The Opportunity rover was originally designed to last the 90-day mission, but it proved sturdier than expected through the years.