Why Nasa has lost contact with its Opportunity rover on Mars

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That means everything effectively shuts off, except the mission clock, which can wake the computer and check the rover's power levels each day to see whether it can communicate. Occasionally, they can balloon into regional storms in a matter of days, and sometimes even expand until they envelop the planet. "It's like you have a loved one in a coma in the hospital". The doctors are telling you to give it time, and the vital signs are good.

Opportunity has set records for the most travelled surface vehicle on any planet, trundling some 45km. The space agency touts the rover's durability in lasting almost 15 years in action despite being designed for a 90-day mission.

It was trying to establish whether the valley had been sculpted by water or wind erosion, or both. The latest data show that the temperature of the Rover fell to -29 degrees Celsius.

Mars dust storm hits Opportunity rover
Mars Dust Storm 'Ideal' For Scientific Study

This time, the rover's energy level is believed to be much lower.

Fortunately for NASA, dust storms tend to trap radiation, preventing the kind of wild temperature swings that often occur on Mars. Unfurled, they contain full propulsion systems. "He disconnected his battery from the rest of the electronics, and only the clock running in the background", says Mike Seibert, a former member of the mission Opportunity.

Because dust storms can alter the Martian landscape, shaping the surface's rocks and sediment, understanding the storms' dynamics is essential to understanding the Red Planet's geological history. It may take weeks for the clouds to clear.

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Scientists aren't sure what causes huge, planet-scale dust storms like the one now raging. Spirit later got stuck in a sand trap, where it could not angle toward the sun in the winter, and has been silent since 2010. The storm has been growing since the end of May with unprecedented speed.

Scientists gauge the strength of a dust storm with the unit tau, a measurement of the atmosphere's opacity.

Even on the opposite side of the planet, where the Curiosity rover is parked at Gale Crater, the thick red haze nearly completely obscures the horizon. Spacecraft orbiting Mars are too high to be affected. Despite the fact that the atmospheric density of Mars is considerably lower than the density of Earth's atmosphere, and during hurricanes the amount raised in the air particles is relatively small, it still can be a problem for Rovers, powered by solar batteries.

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"Each observation of these large storms brings us closer to being able to model these events-and maybe, someday, being able to forecast them", Rich Zurek, chief scientist for the Mars Program Office at JPL in California, said. "But regardless of how this turns out, this little rover has proven to be an invaluable investment that has greatly increased our ability to explore the Red Planet".

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