A vast dust storm is covering about a quarter of the land area on Mars, and a venerable NASA rover is riding it out under skies dark with dust the consistency of talcum powder.
NASA engineers say they have attempted to contact the Opportunity rover, which is in the thick of this Martian dust storm, but have not heard back from the nearly 15-year old rolling science platform.
The team said they are now operating under the assumption that the charge in Opportunity’s batteries has dipped below 24 volts and the rover has entered low power fault mode.
That mode, according to NASA scientists, is a condition where all subsystems except a mission clock are turned off.
The reason for the low power fault mode is the near complete absence of sunlight to keep the rover's batteries charged from its solar plates.
Scientists say the rover’s mission clock is programmed to wake the computer so it can check power levels every so often.
If the rover’s computer determines that its batteries don't have enough charge, scientists say it will again put itself back to sleep and wait for clearer skies and more charge on the batteries.
Curiosity is in Perseverance Valley, and because of the extreme amount of dust over the valley, mission engineers say they believe it is unlikely the rover has enough sunlight to charge back up for at least the next several days.
They add the Martian dust storm which has blotted out the sun above Opportunity has continued to intensify.
The storm, which was first detected on May 30, now blankets 14-million square miles of Martian surface ... roughly a quarter of the planet.
Engineers remained upbeat Wednesday, saying they believed if Curiosity were able to avoid getting its solar plates layered with dust residue from the storm, it should be back up to working order once the batteries eventually charged back up.