A huge dust storm began forming on Mars in May 2018 and had expanded to nearly encircle the planet by the middle of June. See images of the storm here.In June 2018, one of the most intense dust storms ever seen on Mars began. The dust storm, which grew to completely cover the planet, caught NASA’s Opportunity rover by surprise, forcing it into survival mode. Here’s a look at how the storm grew, how NASA is tracking it and what it means for the Opportunity rover on Mars.
As the dust storm intensified on Mars, the days grew darker until the sun disappeared. This series of simulated images shows what that would have looked like to Opportunity.
At far left is the sun on Mars during a brilliant mid-afternoon in early June. But as the storm intensifies (toward the right), the sun’s light dwindles away until it’s a mere pinprick of illumination. With so little sunlight, Opportunity’s solar arrays are starved of power. As the Martian dust storm grew, the Opportunity rover’s power levels plummeted, forcing the rover to fall silent on June 12, 2018. (This NASA chart shows how those levels changed over time.) The biggest risk to Opportunity from the dust storm is power. During Martian winter, Opportunity would be at risk from bitter cold temperatures that could kill the rover if it could not power its heaters. But in June 2018, it is almost summer on Mars, so the temperatures will never reach below the danger limit, according to NASA.
So power is the main need. If it falls too low, Opportunity’s mission clock (which tells the rover when to wake up and check if it has enough power to phone home) could shut down. That would require a lengthy workaround on the rover’s part to find out what time it is on Mars before it could call home.
NASA scientists are optimistic that Opportunity will survive this storm. After all, it’s not the rover’s first “dust-up” (sorry, couldn’t resist) on Mars.
In 2007, a massive storm encircled Mars for two weeks and Opportunity lost contact with Earth for days as it endured the dusty weather event. The rover survived, and scientists are hopeful it will do so again. What about the Curiosity rover? It’s totally fine. Curiosity does not use solar arrays for power. It has a nuclear generator to keep itself powered. As Opportunity and Curiosity ride out the storm, NASA will continue to track the tempest from space. The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter is just one of a fleet of spacecraft at the space agency’s fingertips to keep a Martian vigil.
NASA’s MAVEN orbiter, which is built to study the Martian atmosphere, is one vital asset for studying how dust storms actually work on Mars. NASA also has the Mars Odyssey orbiter available for follow up observations.
Meanwhile, India’s Mars Orbiter Mission spacecraft is also circling the Red Planet. The European Space Agency has two orbiters at Mars: The Mars Express spacecraft and the ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter (another Martian atmosphere mission). So there’s no lack of coverage in tracking this global Martian dust storm.
FINALLY: About those Mars dust storms