Nasa declares ‘spaceship EMERGENCY’ after losing contact with Mars Rover

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The golf-cart-size Opportunity landed in January 2004, a few weeks after its twin, Spirit, touched down on a different part of the Red Planet.

This dust storm is one of the most intense ever seen on the Red Planet. During that storm, the rover was limited to minimal operations for two weeks and went for several days without contact.

"We do want to maintain some level of activity on the rover, because that's what keeps the rover warm", says John Callas, the Opportunity project manager. The analogy I use is it's like having a loved one in the hospital.

"It just doesn't get any better than that". You just have to wait it out. But, you know, if it's your 97-year-old grandmother, you're going to be very concerned. "By no means are we out of the wood here".

However, the storm can last a long time.

He said engineers are optimistic Opportunity will survive the record storm and eventually phone home, but no one is resting easy given the rover's age and the team's emotional attachment to the long-lived robot.

The storm has been growing since the end of May and now covers one-quarter of the planet, blanketing 14 million square miles blotting out the sun. A Martian storm, which has since grown to occupy an area larger than North America - 18 million km² (7 million mi²) - was blowing in over rover's position in the Perseverance Valley.

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"We're all pulling for Opportunity", says Jim Watzin, the director of NASA's Mars Exploration Program.

"Due to an extreme amount of dust over Perseverance Valley, mission engineers believe it is unlikely the rover has enough sunlight to charge back up for at least the next several days", a Tuesday night NASA update explained.

"Our expectation at this point is that the rover has gone to sleep, it's in this low-power mode, and that it will remain in that low-power mode until there is sufficient energy to charge the batteries back above a certain threshold", Callas added.

Created to work for just 90 days when it landed back in January 2004, Opportunity has managed to keep on rolling even though it does so now only in reverse and the arm that it uses to put instruments next to rocks to examine them is arthritic.

This latest data transmission showed the rover's temperature to be about minus 29 degrees Celsius.

The main issue with the power loss is with the rover's battery-powered heaters, which protect it from the bitter Martian cold.

"We think we can ride this out for a while".

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Although the rover needs solar energy, it has about 8 watts of thermal energy available in its insulated box. There is a risk to the rover if the storm persists for too long and Opportunity gets too cold while waiting for the skies to clear.

The storms, which begin during the southern hemisphere's summer, are fueled by sunlight warming the surface-level air.

That's helpful both for understanding the storms in general, and also for preparing for human trips to Mars. This storm, Zurek said, should die out before that landing, although there is a chance a second storm could later form.

In a matter of days, the storm had ballooned.

The mission scientists are intrigued: Why do these massive widespread events happen in some years but not all?

Opportunity was in remarkably good health going into the storm, Callas said, with only an arthritic joint in its robotic arm. "Knowing and understanding how these storms behave ahead of more ambitious missions, it is essential that we learn to monitor and predict storms".

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