The Opportunity rover on Mars fell silent on June 10, following a dust storm which encircled the Red Planet at the end of May. With that storm now subsiding, NASA hopes to re-establish contact with the spacecraft in the coming weeks.
Opportunity landed on Mars in 2004, exploring the region near the area where it landed. The storm which silenced the rover was first spotted by astronomers on May 27, enveloping the planet by June 20. Solar panels which powered the vehicle were unable to collect sunlight, and NASA lost contact with the rover.
“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,” said John Callas, Opportunity project manager at Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL).
Mission directors will attempt to ascertain the health of the roving observatory, which has now not been heard from in nearly two months. As the dust clears from this massive storm, NASA official hope batteries powering the rover will recharge as solar collectors are once again exposed to the Sun. The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), currently in orbit around the Red Planet, will be utilized to listen for evidence of Opportunity waking up from its slumber.
On August 30, NASA officials announced a timeline to regain contact with the troubled spacecraft. Once the storm has cleared to a certain point, the space agency will begin sending signals to the spacecraft, which should wake Opportunity from its slumber. A 45-day waiting period will begin as mission controllers listen for a signal. If NASA does not hear from the vehicle during that period, the team will commence an inactive listening period which could last several months.
One challenge facing the rover is that as the storm dies down, the dust in the air will fall from the sky – and this could cover the solar panels on Opportunity, blocking electrical generation once more. Some leaders of the program, including former flight director Mike Seibert, believe NASA should continue active listening until after Martian winds pick up again in November, which could blow dust off the panels.
The vehicle was designed as a partner to the Spirit rover, which landed on the opposite side of the planet. Each of the spacecraft far exceeded their design specifications of completing a 90-day mission. Spirit lasted more than seven years on Mars, while Opportunity has been returning data for nearly 15.