NASA to pull plug on silent Opportunity rover after 15 years on Mars | Science & Tech News

NASA is to make a final attempt to contact its Opportunity rover on Mars before pulling the plug on the mission after 15 years.

Opportunity has been silent for eight months following an enormous dust storm on the planet.

Thick dust darkened the Martian sky last June, cutting off power for the solar-powered rover.

A quarter of the planet was engulfed in the storm, which was even detected on the other side of Mars by the nuclear-powered Curiosity rover.

NASA said it sent a final series of recovery commands on Tuesday, giving it until Wednesday for a response.

In case of no response, as the agency expects, NASA will declare the rover dead.

This illustration made available by NASA shows the rover Opportunity on the surface of Mars. The exploratory vehicle landed on Jan. 24, 2004, and logged more than 28 miles (45 kilometers) before falling silent during a global dust storm in June 2018. There was so much dust in the Martian atmosphere that sunlight could not reach Opportunity's solar panels for power generation.
Image:
Opportunity, as illustrated by NASA, may be declared dead soon

Opportunity launched in 2003 and landed in 2004. It has since covered more than 45km (28 miles).

It was only expected to be active for slightly more than 90 days in Earth time, but outperformed this target by more than 14 years.

Opportunity’s twin rover, Spirit, was pronounced dead in 2011 after it got stuck in sand in 2009.

NASA’s project manager John Callas told the AP: “It’s just like a loved one who’s gone missing, and you keep holding out hope that they will show up and that they’re healthy.

“But each passing day that diminishes, and at some point you have to say ‘enough’ and move on with your life.”

The Martian landscape previously captured by Opportunity
Image:
The Martian landscape previously captured by Opportunity

The deputy project scientist Abigail Fraeman, who was a 16-year-old high school student when Opportunity landed on Mars, added: “It gives you an idea just how long this mission has lasted.

“Opportunity’s just been a workhorse… It’s really a testament, I think, to how well the mission was designed and how careful the team was in operating the vehicle.”

NASA’s engineers believe that Opportunity’s internal clock could have been scrambled during the outage caused by the dust storm.

If this happened then the rover’s sleep cycle – which aims to conserve power during darkness – could have malfunctioned, draining the batteries.

Opportunity “has given us a larger world,” said Dr Callas, adding: “Mars is now part of our neighbourhood.”

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