One of the largest dust storms we’ve ever seen on Mars is finally abating, raising hopes that the Opportunity rover will soon be able to gain enough power to resume normal contact with Earth. At this point, the rover has been out of contact since June, and controllers are gearing up to attempt to make the rover respond to commands sent through NASA’s Deep Space Network.
Unlike the larger Curiosity wanderer, Opportunity works on solar energy. And as the current dust storm gradually grew to encompass the entire atmosphere of Mars, the sunlight that propelled it gradually faded away. for several months, Opportunity has not received enough power to maintain normal function, causing it to go into a sleep state. When it underwent this shift in June, the rover was waiting for enough power to begin checking in with its operators here on Earth.
Based on the atmospheric conditions, those operators expect that the power will probably be sufficient in the very near future. However, there are some uncertainties regarding the rover’s condition, which could mean that it won’t make contact as expected. The simplest possibility is that the storm deposited enough dust on the rover’s solar panels to prevent them from reaching adequate power levels. That could delay the return from hibernation until the last dust is cleared from the atmosphere, or it could even keep power down until local winds rip the panels off.
All that, of course, assumes that everything works normally. Big chance that Opportunity‘s power fell so low that the built-in clock stopped. If so, there’s no way of knowing when the rover will attempt to reestablish contact. That’s one of the reasons operators prepare to send commands to make contact instead of waiting for the rover to check in.
There is also a chance that some power or communication hardware will fail during hibernation. Operators expect the rover site to remain so warm that some small onboard heaters will keep the components at or above the temperature they are rated for, so the main problem is that the components are old and conditions have been harsh for The They have been on Mars for 14 years.
NASA will attempt to contact the rover for 45 days after conditions are good enough to generate enough power to respond. If there is no response during that period, the rover’s controllers will simply passively listen for the check-in for several additional months.