In Brief

Why Nasa has lost contact with its Opportunity rover on Mars

‘Unprecedented’ dust storm has engulfed the red planet for past two weeks

Nasa has lost contact with its Opportunity rover on Mars after an “unprecedented” dust storm engulfed the planet.  

The little robot, which has been on Mars since the start of 2004, requires sunlight to charge its batteries, The Independent reports. But with the vast dust storm covering about a quarter of the planet for the past two weeks, the rover has run out of power.

Although the storm is only expected to last for a few days, it could be months until the machine’s solar panels absorb enough energy to begin transmitting data back to Earth, the news site adds. 

“By no means are we out of the woods here,” Opportunity project manager John Callas said yesterday. “This storm is threatening and we don't know how long it will last, and we don't know what the environment will be like once it clears.”

Mission controllers at the US space agency’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, lost contact with the rover on Tuesday evening, according to The Guardian

The storm was first detected by Nasa on 30 May, but grew at an extraordinary rate and quickly engulfed the rover in thick clouds of dust. 

Nasa’s far newer Mars rover, called Curiosity, is powered by a nuclear reactor and therefore does not need sunlight to stay powered up. 

Despite its current power outage, the Opportunity rover has more than exceeded initial expectations during its 14-year stint on the red planet. 

According to the BBC, the droid was only designed to work for 90 days yet is still going, although it can only move in reverse and its robotic arm, used to examine rocks, is “arthritic”.

Prior to the storm, Opportunity had been exploring the Perseverance Valley on the western rim of Mars, in a bid to work out whether the valley was formed by water or wind. 

Nasa hopes to continue the mission when, or if, it regains contact with the robot.

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