The dust storm on Mars ceases, but the Opportunity rover remains silent

Dust storms on Mars are quite common. Usually they happen when summer comes in the Southern Hemisphere of the Red Planet. And although they can start quite unexpectedly, they last, as a rule, not more than a few weeks, creating a weather collapse only in a certain territory. But sometimes the Martian dust storms can become a real global phenomenon.

One such dust storm began in May this year in a region called Arabia Terra, and then quickly (literally in a few weeks) developed into a planetary problem covering the entire territory of Mars. Most went to the rover Opportunity, which is located in the Perseverance Valley. The dust that rose in the atmosphere of the planet almost completely closed the sun rays from the rover, forcing it to go into sleep mode. According to forecasts of meteorologists of the NASA aerospace agency, a dust storm should be completed within the next few weeks, but from “Opportunity” there is still no news.

The Mars Exploration Program, responsible for the operation of the Mars Opportunities Opportunity and Curiosity, the three Martian orbiting vehicles (Mars Odyssey, MRO and MAVEN) and the mission of the InSight landing module, which Mars must land in 109 days, shared the latest data on the current situation .

So, according to the latest information, the dusty Martian storm begins to subside, but it will take several more weeks or months for the Red Planet’s sky to become transparent enough that Opportunity could exit the hibernation regime and continue its work.

As already mentioned above, the dust storms of Mars are a seasonal phenomenon. They occur when summer comes in the southern hemisphere – the time when Mars is closer to the Sun. With increasing temperature, dust particles rise higher into the atmosphere of the planet, creating more wind. As a result, it picks up even more dust, creating a natural cycle, in the mechanism of which NASA is still trying to figure it out.

Since the southern polar region is facing the Sun in summer, the frozen carbon dioxide contained in the polar cap begins to evaporate. This leads to a densification of the atmosphere and increases atmospheric pressure, which helps to reduce the amount of dust emitted into the air, but at the same time does not allow the dust already contained in the atmosphere to settle down. As noted in NASA, in some cases, dust clouds on Mars can rise to a height of 60 kilometers.

Nevertheless, global dust storms are a relatively rare phenomenon. Similar events occur every 3-4 Mars years (approximately equal to 6-8 Earth years). Such large-scale atmospheric phenomena were observed, for example, in 1971 (during the missions “Mariner 9” and “Viking-1”) and in 2001 (mission Mars Global Surveyor). In 2007, too, there was a big storm that closed the sky over Opportunity and made it impossible to carry out the tasks set for the rover, minimizing its activity. But this year it was much worse. The storm was so strong and dense that it significantly increased the level of atmospheric opacity of the planet. In fact, the storm created a permanent night over the location of the rover, forcing the scientific command of the rover to suspend all operations.

The main problem is that “Opportunity”, unlike the more modern “Kyuriosity”, operating on the basis of a radioisotope thermoelectric generator, relies solely on the electricity it receives by collecting solar energy. Moreover, the long duration of the dust storm creates a problem for the operation of the rover heaters, which protect its batteries from the extreme cold of the Martian atmosphere.

According to the latest data, the amount of dust released into the atmosphere begins to decrease. This means that the storm has approached its final phase and will further decline. Using Mars Color Imager (MARCI) and Mars Climate Sounder (MCS) Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), NASA specialists also noted surface signs of weather change, as well as the absence of further temperature rise in the middle layers of the atmosphere of Mars, indicating a smaller heating of the dust contained in it by the sun’s rays.

Mars rover “Curiosity” located in another part of the planet also noted a decrease in the level of dust above itself. For “Opportunity” – this is definitely good news. Still, scientists believe that it will not be possible to restore communication with the rover for a few weeks or even months, when the solar panels of the rover will again be able to receive enough energy. The last time the communication was on June 10th.

Scientists do not doubt that “Opportunity” and this time can survive such a strong sandstorm. Confidence in this is attached to the fact that the device was originally developed for a 90-day mission, but has been working on the Red Planet for more than 14 years.