CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla.—NASA's seemingly unstoppable Mars rover Opportunity has been knocked out by a gigantic dust storm that is enveloping the red planet and blotting out the sun.
Officials said yesterday they're hopeful the rover will survive the storm, which already covers one-quarter of Mars and is expected to encircle the planet in another few days.
But it could be weeks—or even months—until the sky clears enough for sunlight to reach the Martian surface and recharge Opportunity's batteries through its solar panels.
For now, Mars' oldest-working rover is stuck in the middle of the raging storm in round-the-clock darkness.
“By no means are we out of the woods here,” stressed John Callas, the Opportunity project manager at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.
“This storm is threatening and we don't know how long it will last, and we don't know what the environment will be like once it clears,” he noted.
Flight controllers tried late Tuesday night to contact Opportunity but the rover did not respond.
The storm has been growing since the end of May with unprecedented speed.
NASA launched the twin rovers Opportunity and Spirit in 2003 to study Martian rocks and soil. They landed in 2004.
Spirit hasn't worked for several years. Opportunity, however, has kept exploring well past its expected mission lifetime.
Scientists aren't nearly as concerned about the newer, nuclear-powered Curiosity rover on the other side of Mars, which already is seeing darkening skies.
Dust storms crop up every so often at Mars, sending dust tens of kilometres into the atmosphere and turning day into night.
Spacecraft orbiting Mars are too high to be affected.
There's no chance of Opportunity being buried or getting a wheel stuck in dust. Even in the worst of storms, only a layer of fine dust is left behind.
Managers said the main concern is that dust temporarily could cover its optical instruments.
This isn't Opportunity's first major brush with dust. In 2007, a massive dust storm kept it silent for a few days.
It jumped back into action after awakening from its deep self-protecting slumber.
This time, the rover's energy level is believed to be much lower.
On the plus side, Martian summertime is approaching and that should keep temperatures up at night and prevent the batteries and other parts from freezing.
Scientists are eager to learn as much as they can about the dust storm to hone their weather forecasting skills.
Astronauts living on Mars, for instance, wouldn't want to get caught outside in a fierce dust storm, where winds can reach 70 m.p.h. (113 km/h)—almost hurricane force.