SEPTEMBER 15, 2018
Even if you aren’t particularly interested in space or science news you’ve probably heard about the plight of NASA’s Opportunity rover. The plucky robot, which has far outlived its initial mission and has been conducting “bonus” science work for over a decade since, was swallowed up by a massive dust storm on Mars, cutting off sunlight and causing it to lose power due to lack of solar energy for its batteries.
That was in early June, and even though the skies above the rover have become bright again there’s been no sign that the rover has woken back up. Now, with hope and patience both dwindling, NASA has officially started the countdown to declaring the rover officially dead.
In its most recent mission update, the Opportunity team explained that it was planning a 45-day countdown throughout which it would make an effort to wake the robot back up. As Gizmodo explains, that timer began ticking on Wednesday of this week, and now everyone has to hold their breath and wait for the bot to phone home.
There are a number of different things that could have happened to the rover that would have caused it to shut down. The first, a low-power fault, is the most likely culprit. Such a fault would cause the rover to enter a sort of hibernation where it would wake up occasionally to check its power levels. When the Sun began hitting its solar panels and charging its battery again, the rover should notice the full batteries and begin communicating again.
That means something else might have gone wrong. A clock fault, where the rover loses track of time and doesn’t know when to check in or attempt to send a signal. An uploss fault occurs when the rover goes too long without talking to its handlers on Earth and assumes something is wrong with its own communication hardware. Even if Opportunity had experienced all three of these faults, the 45-day window should be enough time to negate them, as long as its batteries have power.
That last point is obviously the biggest question mark of them all. Nobody knows what Opportunity looks like right now, whether its solar panels are covered in dusty soil or if sun is actually able to reach them. Likewise, the rover’s battery might have been damaged from the extensive downtime and could be broken. If we never hear from Opportunity again we might never know what actually happened to the friendly rover, but we’ll keep our fingers crossed that it wakes back up soon.