It has been nearly a few months since NASA has received any communication from the Mars Opportunity rover, but scientists are not necessarily pessimistic about it. Unfortunately, a massive, planet-wide dust storm reduced exposure to the sun, which cut solar power off from the rover on June 10 of this year. But that storm is finally subsiding, so NASA officials are waiting to see if Opportunity will be able to recharge when the sun comes out again.
Now, it is important to note that the Mars Opportunity rover is almost 15 years old. A decade-and-a-half is much older than the original mission duration—three months—but Opportunity continues to be the little rover that could, delivering scientific observations back to Earth all this time.
Indeed, being in the dark for so long is certainly reason to lose hope but NASA says that studies of the rover prior to the onset of the storm show that the batteries remain in good health and, more than likely, will not suffer much degradation—if at all—during the dust storm. Fortunately, they say that the rover’s location has been warm enough to survive through this long stretch of cold darkness.
Still, NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s Andrew Good cautions that the battery might not be damaged but it might have discharged too much power to restore the $400 million rover.
In a recent blog post he argues, “Even if engineers hear back from Opportunity, there’s a real possibility the rover won’t be the same. The rover’s batteries could have discharged so much power — and stayed inactive so long — that their capacity is reduced. If those batteries can’t hold as much charge, it could affect the rover’s continued operations.”
Good goes on to caution that we are not going to really know for sure Opportunity’s state “until it speaks.”
He adds, “Because the batteries were in relatively good health before the storm, there’s not likely to be too much degradation. And because dust storms tend to warm the environment — and the 2018 storm happened as Opportunity’s location on Mars entered summer — the rover should have stayed warm enough to survive.”
Good’s blog post continues, “After the first time engineers hear from Opportunity, there could be a lag of several weeks before the second time. It’s like a patient coming out of a coma: It takes time to fully recover. It may take several communication sessions before engineers have enough information to take action.”