NASA Opportunity Rover Just Got a Survival Deadline on Mars – What Does That Mean?


On 30 August, NASA had a grim announcement to make about recovering the silent rover on Mars. After fighting the dust storm that wrapped the entire Red Planet, the rover hasn’t sent a signal back home for months. Scientists that have been working on the project for over a decade are worried that the timeline isn’t fair.

Opportunity was launched in 2003 and landed in January 2004 on Mars. This massive dust storm has made the rover silent since June 10 because the sun was blocked from the solar panels Opportunity uses to function. However, the storm has started to clear, and the team hopes that the rover will power again and go back to work as soon as possible.

Tanya Harrison, a team collaborator on Opportunity and a planetary scientist at Arizona State University, explains that:

“Opportunity has everything going for her. We’re not giving it a fair shot.”

Even though the mission lasted far more years than it was planned because the robot didn’t die off, its team cannot yet say goodbye to the hardworking rover.

The Deadline Is Set

NASA has quite an elaborate plan. It will have the team wait until the dust clouds reach 1.5 tau (the peak of the storm had a nearly 10 tau). After that, the team will enter a 45-day active-listening period to send commands to the rover and force it to send a response.

If the rover doesn’t call back, the team will enter a passive listening period, waiting to see if the Mars-observing antennas caught a signal from Opportunity. The team will continue the passive listening until the end of January, explained the Opportunity project manager at NASA’s JPL, John Callas, adding that:

“We’re not ending the mission after 45 days. But I’m not going to keep full staffing around for six months or eight months if the chance of success is low.”

At the end of January, the Mars Exploration Rovers mission which started with Opportunity and the rover Spirit will finally end.

Callas concluded that “you still hold out hope, and we are. We’ll still listen. But we have to be realistic, too, as difficult as that is emotionally.”

A former flight director for the Mars Exploration Rovers program, Mike Seibert said that he’s waiting for his friends to call him if there’s a signal so he can take a plane and celebrate with the team:

“I really hope I get that phone call soon.”

So does everyone, Mr. Seibert!


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