Mars is starting to see clear skies weeks after a planet-wide dust storm, but the fate of NASA's Opportunity rover remains unknown.
The space agency is still waiting for enough sun to reach the surface of the planet and power up the 15-year-old vehicle. Engineers at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in California are waiting until the rover recharges its batteries before they can attempt to communicate to the Martian explorer.
Ground Control To Opportunity
"The Sun is breaking through the haze over Perseverance Valley, and soon there will be enough sunlight present that Opportunity should be able to recharge its batteries," explained John Callas, project manager at JPL.
For the rover to start recharging its batteries, it would need the tau level, or the amount of matter in the atmosphere, to drop to 1.5. According to the measurement by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, the tau on the red planet is still currently at 1.7. It would not be long now before the dust in the sky settles back to the ground and allow some sunlight to reach the rover's solar panels.
Once the tau in Mars drops to 1.5, engineers from Earth will repeatedly attempt to communicate with the rover by sending it commands via the Deep Space Network. If Opportunity responds, the space agency will begin looking for possible damages before they attempt a reboot.
While NASA remains optimistic that the rover will attempt to reach out to ground control, mission managers are also prepared to hear radio silence for a few days.
"If we do not hear back after 45 days, the team will be forced to conclude that the Sun-blocking dust and the Martian cold have conspired to cause some type of fault from which the rover will more than likely not recover," shared Callas. "At that point our active phase of reaching out to Opportunity will be at an end."
The Opportunity project manager, however, assured that NASA will continue listening "passively" to any communications from the rover in the next several months in case a dust devil comes along and blow off the debris on its solar panels.
Mars Opportunity: Defying All Odds
Opportunity landed on the arid surface of Mars on Jan. 25, 2004. It was only supposed to be in operation for three months, but it has persisted despite the tough conditions in the red planet.
Since it arrived in Earth's neighboring planet, the six-wheeled explorer has logged over 28 miles and has become the longest-running rover in Mars.