Massive Dust Storm Threatens Mars Rover

Conspiracists go wild as Life on Mars 'proved by NASA'

One of Mars' more unusual characteristics is its tendency to generate dust storms of incredible size. In 2020, the next big mission will be launched, which will be able to send "pinkie-sized samples of Mars" back to by analyzed in laboratories on Earth.

In what could be a very important announcement in our search for life on other planets, NASA has revealed that they have discovered what could be the "building blocks" of ancient life on the Red Planet.

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The swirling dust is impacting Opportunity's solar panels, which it uses to recharge its batteries and power the heaters that allow the rover to function in the extreme cold conditions of Mars. It now covers an area of 7 million mi² (18 million km²) or about that of North America, including Opportunity's location in Perseverance Valley.

The Martian dust storm was first spotted from space by NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, NASA officials said. It increased the atmospheric opacity in the region, creating a smog-like situation where most of the sunlight gets blocked out. This is comparable to an extremely smoggy day that blots out sunlight. That led to two weeks of minimal operations, including several days with no contact from the rover to save power.

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"It's not unlike running a vehicle in the winter so that the cold doesn't sap its battery charge", NASA writes in a release. When the storm was first detected, NASA notified the rover's team to take proactive measures and protect Opportunity from storm. If the storm lasts too long, the main concern will be the Martian cold, a danger Opportunity has faced in the past, NASA officials said. Conducting research is pretty tough with dust and debris flying around, but being caught in the storm isn't just a bummer from a scientific standpoint; Opportunity's power comes from batteries linked to solar panels, and those solar panels don't work well when the skies aren't clear.

While Green is confident that humankind will get to Mars within a couple of decades - NASA's target is 2040 - he explains that there are now significant obstacles to reaching this goal. The rover's initial mission timeline was just 90 days, but it's now approaching its 15th full year of operation. Opportunity is in its 15th year; the team has operated the rover for more than 50 times longer than originally planned. Although this dust storm event is not shocking as it had occured previously, they do not frequently occur, once they occur they can last for even months. During summer in the south, the Sun warms dust particles, causing them to rise up higher into the sky. The updrafts of dust can trigger more winds, triggering a feedback loop that fuels the birth of a dust storm.

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