Opportunity — can you hear us?

The Mars Exploration Rover B “Opportunity” has been such an amazing success story.  From a remarkable “hole-in-one” landing in January of 2004….

…to record-shattering traverses of Meridiani Planum for over 14 years, currently taking it to a location aptly named Perseverance Valley, Opportunity has far outlived all of the expectations for it.  It has outlived its sister vehicle, Spirit, which became mired and unable to orient its solar panels for optimal illumination in the long Martian winter, and seen remarkably fortuitous weather events — dust devils that cleared the pernicious accumulation of dust from its solar panels.

But now, the rover’s been going on so long it almost seems unstoppable.  XKCD’s Randall Munroe took this its logical extreme:

We all remember those famous first words spoken by an astronaut on the surface of Mars: It really has seemed as if Opportunity is unstoppable.

The Martian Terminator of rovers, if you will.

But it’s possible it’s now met its match in the form of what is shaping up to be the biggest dust storm on Mars in a long time, possibly since the staggering dust storm that enveloped Mars just before Mariner 9 arrived in 1971, lasting months before the probe was able to begin usefully photographing the red planet.  If this storm also lasts months, it will surely kill Opportunity; it’s summer in Meridiani Planum, which helps a lot, but this storm is likely blotting out the sun almost completely.  A few days ago, NASA lost the signal from Opportunity.  Over the previous few days, the probe’s telemetry had reported plummeting power output from the solar panels, so at present, it is certainly subsisting on battery power, running only its mission clock so it can periodically wake up and check to see if there is light again.  If the storm lifts soon, we may hear from Opportunity again.  But if not . . . .

Well.  Cross your fingers.  😉  This plucky little robot has surprised us before.

PS If you’re wondering about Curiosity, well, that probe is on the other side of the planet, in Gale Crater.  But the storm is so massive that Curiosity is beginning to see the effects as well.  Unlike Opportunity, though, Curiosity runs off of a Pu-238 radioisotope thermoelectric generator; it can run just as well in the dark as in daylight.  (Well, except for the fact that it doesn’t have headlights so can’t see where it’s going.)  Curiosity may eventually find its science operations impeded by the weather, but at least it won’t have to worry about power for a good long while.

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