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The Mars Rover lovingly called Opportunity might not survive much longer if it is still alive at all. Cut off from contact since June 10, 2018, when dust storms made it impossible for Oppy to phone home, engineers and scientists have tried to contact the rover repeatedly ever since – over 600 times.
Now, scientists are putting into action a new plan to contact the 15-year-old rover in the hopes of solving one of three potential problems Oppy may have had when hit by the storm.
According to Opportunity’s project manager, John Callas, who works at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory at NASA, engineers have desperately tried to reach Oppy, but to no avail:
“Over the past seven months, we have attempted to contact Opportunity over 600 times. While we have not heard back from the rover and the probability that we ever will is decreasing every day, we plan to continue to pursue every logical solution that could put us back in touch.”
Realistically, this late in the game, contacting Oppy is increasingly unlikely to happen, he said, since the sweep and beep commands they’ve sent haven’t been returned. But the scientists and engineers hold out hope that they may be able to revive it using new commands.
The sweep and beep commands ping the rover and instruct it to send back a simple beep to let the scientists know that it is still functioning. They’ve done this instead of simply listening to the rover’s messages. But, after many months of trying, Oppy hasn’t sent any beeps.
According to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, the new commands are different in that they will address three (unlikely) scenarios:
- One command will attempt to get Oppy to switch over to a backup radio, in the off chance that its main or secondary radios used to phone home were damaged in the storm.
- Another command will try to get Oppy to reset its internal clock, which is how Oppy determines when to send signals home.
- The third will attempt to get Oppy to use the UHF radio to phone home.
Scientists will have to hurry though because the best time to send these signals to mars is about to end called the “dust clearing season.” During this season, multiple natural phenomena result in increased winds that help clear off Oppy’s solar panels, which allows the rover to charge its batteries.
Complicating the issue is that Mars is also about to enter its southern winter when temperatures dip so low, they could damage the rover if it hasn’t charged beforehand. Scientists fear that the cold could damage computer systems, batteries, and wiring, among other parts. If this happens, there’s little hope of ever recovering.
Why are scientists going through so much effort to get Oppy to phone home? The simple answer is that the Mars Rover program has been even more successful than anyone imagined it would be. They initially thought the rover would have a projected lifespan of two or three years, with the initial mission of 90 days.
Oppy has been in operation for 15 years so far and has made hundreds of significant discoveries since it landed on Mars on January 24, 2004. Its sister rover, Spirit landed a few months before. Sadly, Spirit is no longer in operation.
Some of these discoveries include martian meteorites, wind-blown dunes, and water-carved rocks.
Probably more significantly, Oppy also discovered what scientists declared as evidence of an ancient, habitable Mars, ancient lakes, and more recently, signs that life once existed on the now dead planet.
At the moment, scientists still have hope that their efforts will result in a response from Oppy. The JPL said in a statement that if they receive a response from Oppy using either method to contact it, engineers will devise a plan to recover Oppy and continue its mission.
However, if Oppy doesn’t phone home, they’ll consult with the Mars Program Office and NASA to figure out what, if anything to do next before they declare the mission – and Oppy – dead.
Check out this video for more information about the dust storms that affected Oppy:
Featured Image By NASA/JPL/Cal-Tech, Public Domain.