NASA’s scientists are beginning to think that the agency’s Mars Opportunity rover may be dead. NASA lost contact with the rover last June after it was engulfed by one of the most ferocious storms on Mars in decades. Since then, the rover has not responded to signals from Earth.
The Opportunity rover made its successful landing on Mars in January 2004. Expected to operate for about 90 Martian days, which is about 40 minutes longer than an Earth day, Opportunity surprised everyone by lasting nearly a decade and a half at 5,111 days. During that time, the rover made many important discoveries, including finding geological signs that water once flowed across the red planet.
When the global dust storm hit, Opportunity was exploring an area that looks like a gully formed by the flowing of water. Before it could reach the bottom, the dust storm darkened the skies to the point that the solar panels on the rover could not recharge it. While it was hoped that the rover would revive after the skies cleared, more than 600 calls from the NASA team to Opportunity have gone unanswered.
NASA is still trying to contact Opportunity. The agency will be sending a new set of signals each day for the next several weeks to see if that can elicit a response. Steven W. Squyres, the principal investigator for the mission, said, “I haven’t given up yet.”
The situation is becoming more urgent as seasonal changes on Mars are making it less and less likely that the solar panels will be able to awake Opportunity. The southern winter brings very low temperatures that are likely to damage to the rover’s systems irreparably. If that happens, Opportunity would be lost for good.