One of NASA's robot rovers on Mars has been silenced as a massive dust storm roars across the Martian surface.
With its power source — the sun — obscured, the rover Opportunity "has gone to sleep," said John Callas, project manager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, on Wednesday. The rover uses solar panels to provide power and recharge its batteries.
The thick dust means Opportunity's solar panels aren't getting enough sunlight to contact its owners back on Earth. NASA believes the rover has entered a low power mode, a condition where all subsystems, except a mission clock, are turned off.
Mission engineers don't think the rover has enough sunlight to charge back up within the next several days.
The main issue with the power loss is with the rover's battery-powered heaters, which protect it from the bitter Martian cold. If the storm persists for too long and Opportunity gets too cold, that could spell its doom.
"We are all concerned," Callas said. Hopefully, once the dust storm finally dissipates, Opportunity will power back up, he said. The dust isn't expected to impact the rover's mechanics or equipment.
The other rover on Mars, Curiosity, is nuclear powered and unlikely to be affected by the storm.
During another dust storm in 2007, Opportunity basically shut down operations and went into survival mode for a few weeks. But this storm is much worse.
Scientists have been tracking dust storms on Mars for more than a century, using both telescopes on Earth and spacecraft orbiting the planet. Mars is infamous for intense dust storms, which sometimes cover the planet and kick up enough dust to be seen by telescopes on Earth.
This dust storm is one of the most intense ever seen on the Red Planet. As of June 10, it covered more than 15.8 million square miles — about the area of North America and Russia combined, NASA said.
The storm started small, but grew at an unprecedented pace to cover about one-quarter of the planet, said Rich Zurek, a NASA scientist. Storms like this typically go on for a few weeks, but can last for months, he said.
Amazingly, the dust storm should entirely cover the planet in two or three days, Zurek said.
NASA engineers and scientists can get emotionally attached to the little rover, according to Callas.
"The analogy I would use right now is it's like you have a loved one in a coma in the hospital," Callas said. "The doctors are telling you that you've just got to give it time and she'll wake up, all the vital signs are good, so it's just waiting it out — but you know, if it's your 97-year-old grandmother you're going to be very concerned. And we are."
NASA launched the twin rovers Opportunity and Spirit in 2003 to study Martian rocks and soil. Spirit hasn’t worked for several years. Opportunity, however, has kept exploring well past its expected mission lifetime of 90 days, NASA said.
Contributing: The Associated Press